The Picture Show
Why The Colorado River Stopped Flowing
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:40 am
Known by some as "America's Nile," the Colorado River stretches about 1,450 miles across seven states and two countries — and photographer Peter McBride has traveled the entire thing, shooting photos for his new book, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict.
McBride explains the conflict in an interview with All Things Considered host Michele Norris. The delta, which was once a vast, lush ecosystem, has all but dried up. "It shows what happens when you ask too much of a limited resource: It disappears," he says.
His journey begins at Snowmass Mountain in Colorado, which, according to his book, supplies some 90 percent of the river's water with snowmelt. From there, the pages of his book wind through Utah and the majestic red rocks of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona; past Las Vegas; down the Arizona-California border; and end in a "frothy Frappuccino pit full of plastic bottles and who knows what," he says. He's referring to the delta, about 90 miles shy of the Sea of Cortez.
"This estuary used to be one of the largest desert estuaries in North America," McBride says. "It ran to the sea for 6 million years, and the river basically stopped in the late '90s. It used to be 3,000 square miles with lush forests and jaguars and deer. And having walked it ... it's nothing but a cracked, parched arid landscape."
How did this happen? As McBride puts it, too many straws in the water: Near Mexico, the river basically produces the entire lettuce crop for the United States in the months of November and December, and all of the nation's carrots in January and February. "So whether you love the river and fish it and float it, or you've never been to it and you live on the East Coast, you actually eat Colorado River water," McBride continues.
Certain cities are setting an example in water conservation. Las Vegas is one of the most progressive water users, McBride says. "Cash for Grass," for example, credits residents up to $2 per square foot for replacing water-consumptive turf lawns with native plants that require little water.
Though drought continues throughout the Southwest, McBride remains optimistic that the delta can be saved. "A lot of it will be about dedicating water ... so the river can be a river and not just a plumbing system," he says.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
American photographer Peter McBride has traveled to Mount Everest, the Amazon and Antarctica. But a few years ago, he set his sights on some place much closer to home: the Colorado River.
Mr. PETER McBRIDE (Photographer): It's not the longest or largest river in the U.S. It's the seventh, but it's definitely the most loved and litigated.
NORRIS: For McBride, that fascination began when he was just a kid. He grew up on a ranch in Colorado. And as he describes it, one day he was driving a tractor, tending a field, and he got to wondering about the water that kept the crops alive. That trickle of an idea led to a project.
McBride partnered with writer Jonathan Waterman, and they traveled along every inch of the river - sometimes on a raft, sometimes in the air, sometimes by foot. He chronicles that journey through spectacular photos in the book "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict."
Peter McBride took us back to the beginning of his travels.
Mr. McBRIDE: So while the river begins in the Rocky Mountain National Park, technically, the Colorado River Basin starts everywhere. So there's an image in the beginning of the book. It's a pretty picture of a high 14,000-foot peak at dawn taken with my father from a small Piper Cub airplane. My old man is a bush pilot, so we teamed up in his single-engine plane. And the snow is covered in brown.
It snows dust or dirt, and they say that's because of increased growth in the desert to the west of us. And what's happening is that's actually speeding up the evaporation of the river and making it run off faster.
NORRIS: It's interesting as you look at this book, Peter, because the terrain changes so much. You leave these, you know, incredible vistas in the Rockies. And then you head pretty quickly down through some very arid territory. And when you get down to an area around Las Vegas, where you have these big engineering projects, these massive dams, in part to help foster growth in an area where it would have been very hard for man to live, if not for that.
Mr. McBRIDE: Absolutely. Las Vegas is actually one of the most progressive water users on the river. In fact, when they made the Law of the River, it's called the Colorado Compact, back in 1922. Nobody expected to see such a population boom in Nevada. So they didn't allocate that much water. Because they get very little water, they're forced to use it wisely. They actually pay people about $2 a square foot to tear out their very water-consumptive Kentucky bluegrass and replace it with more desert-friendly plants.
NORRIS: You show a picture of that, a home that is transformed with this new landscape.
Mr. McBRIDE: I went to this home early in the morning with the Las Vegas Water Authority and was amazed myself to see a very standard suburban home with your typical green grass and trees. And I took a picture at 8:00 in the morning. And I took the exact same photograph at 11:00 that same day. And there's no green grass, and there's some Mesquite trees and some desert shrubs. And the homeowner was thrilled. He got a paycheck. And he also felt like he was doing the right thing for not only his neighborhood but for the river.
NORRIS: By the way, if you're listening and you want to see some of these photos, go to npr.org. We have many of them online there.
Peter, when you tell the river - when you tell the story of the river in terms of numbers, you're almost astonished by how much of that river water is used to help bring food to our tables, for irrigation.
Mr. McBRIDE: It is remarkable. It is really the lifeblood. They call it the American Nile, and it supplies water for 30 million people in the Southwest. Further down the river, down New Mexico, it produces all the lettuce crop for the United States in the months of November and December, and all the carrots in January and February.
So whether you love the river and fish it and float it or you've never been to it and you live on the East Coast, you actually eat Colorado River water.
NORRIS: I know you had a few mishaps along the way. Which moment stick out for you?
Mr. McBRIDE: Probably the most memorable was crossing the delta, which I did with John Waterman, and he paddled the entire length of the river on a remarkable trip. And I met him at the end, and we made it about 2 miles into Mexico before we ended up in this kind of frothy Frappucino pit full of plastic bottles and who knows what. And that was the end of the river, and there's a picture of that.
NORRIS: I'm looking at it right now. It's just jarring after these wonderful pictures of this magnificent body of water, and there he is on that yellow raft stuck in the mud.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McBRIDE: But what's so interesting, Michele, is that this estuary used to be one of the largest desert estuaries in North America. It ran to the sea for 6 million years, and it - the river basically stopped in the late '90s. And having walked it with John, it's nothing but a cracked, parched, arid landscape. And it used to be great for fisheries. The smallest dolphin in the world spawned there, called the vaquita.
That's all changed drastically and, in my opinion, sadly. While all the engineering that we did on this river is quite remarkable and could be considered a triumph of engineering, we've also asked too much of the river. It shows what happens when you ask too much of a limited resource: It disappears.
NORRIS: Peter, it has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. McBRIDE: Thank you so much, Michele, a pleasure.
NORRIS: Peter McBride, he's the photographer for a new book called "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict." And you can see a gallery of his photos from that book at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.