“Trespassing” under barbed wire on the Colorado headwaters. Photo: Courtesy Jonathan Waterman
Jonathan Waterman has summited Denali in –70˚ winter temperatures and paddled the Northwest Passage solo, yet he is more than an adventurer. The Carbondale resident has become the foremost advocate for expedition as a means of activism, combining history, ecology, adventure and politics in his lifework to craft stories that make real-world impact. His latest projects, the narrative book Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River and The Colorado River Flowing through Conflict, a collaboration with photographer Pete McBride, hit close to home. Both illustrate the sad state of the river, which no longer reaches the sea, as well as illuminate the looming water crisis facing a rapidly urbanizing West.
What was the impetus behind a trip that started in your backyard?
I took a sea kayaking journey down the length of the Sea of Cortez in 1993 and began paddling a bit south of the Colorado River Delta. My enchantment with that body of water, and news that the river that fed the sea stopped running in 1998, compelled me to put together another trip that would allow me to link the 800-mile Baja coastline with the 1,450-mile river. Also, since I started raising children in Colorado several years ago, I have grown increasingly concerned what kind of future the west and future generations will face with diminishing water resources.
What is the primary danger of the Colorado no longer being a river that reaches the sea? What effects are we seeing?
This is the first symptom of a cancer that is already beginning to spread throughout the basin. The habitat depletions found in the drying delta that are now spreading upriver and north of the border in many other unprotected zones. Because 30 million people and 3-million-plus farm acres are dependent upon the river as a water source, we’re more attuned to water shortages than the environmental depletions. And those shortages will come very soon.
How is the river changing or in danger here in Colorado?
Front Range population growth demands more and more water through its 12 under-the-Rockies tunnels, that suck the River and its tributaries east. Although the Front Range is entitled to this water under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, many waterways, such as the Fraser, are now sinking below critical minimum stream flows.
What did you learn about the river that you think would surprise most Coloradans?
That it’s against the law to paddle through the headwaters below Rocky Mountain National Park and past adjacent ranching lands. I was chased by a rancher who tried to kick me off “his” river until I asked if I could take a picture of him for National Geographic.
What was the most disturbing part of your journey down the river?
Depletion of a large section of the river below Hoover Dam, where the River—sought after by every farmer and city within a 500-mile radius—become a polluted irrigation canal, with its native fish going, going, gone.
The most uplifting?
Pockets of wildlife refuges and the city, state and national parks where wildlife and invasive species are relatively well managed. For instance, populations of desert bighorn sheep are alive and well all the way from Canyonlands National Park in Utah down to the Mohave Desert, alongside the River in Arizona.
What water issues will we be facing here in Colorado in the near future? Twenty years from now?
In the metro area, water restrictions and a movement away from consumptive grass lawns and toward more visionary water conservation, including a public education program about where most of the Front Range’s water comes from. Twenty years from now, we’ll be seeing legislation proposing population limits because we can’t continue to sustain growing populations with water in semi-arid and arid cities like Phoenix, L.A., Las Vegas and Denver on the distant Colorado River. Most farmers will be selling their water to the cities instead of farming; many industries will consider moving to more water abundant regions rather than pay the rising costs of diminishing water. Twenty years from now, even the lay public and climate change naysayers will face the music: drying conditions plus population growth will give the west its equivalent crisis to the forecast of oceans rising on the coasts.
What can our readers do to make a difference?
You can support legislation that addresses conservation reform rather than new water diversions. Learn more about the subject (read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and Running Dry or study the Colorado River map on my website) figure out your water footprint, and replace your grass with xeriscaping!
You began as a climber but your expeditions have become about more than achieving a physical goal. How do you see the role of outdoor athletes changing?
It would be unconscionable for any outdoor athlete today not to take a stand against further depletion of our compromised planet. The mountains and rivers and oceans we play upon are all changing for the worse and we have an opportunity to serve as role models to make the buck stop here. Although there are many excellent examples of spokespeople adventurers, young and old, found in our every day media, I have always gravitated to the Jane Goodalls, Sylvia Earles and George Schallers who saw the writing on the wall a half century ago and continue to beat the bushes and raise significant media awareness and affect change. In retrospect, the mountains I’ve climbed and long journeys I’ve taken pale next to those adventures where I dedicated myself to speaking out for a cause.
How do you feel about the political polarization of environmental issues? Has it always been this way? Is there any hope or examples of both sides working together?
With the exception of recalcitrant ranchers and a slough of well-heeled lawyers who represent well-endowed water operators, we’re mostly in the same boat when it comes to the Colorado River’s shrinking pains. For instance, I helped create a National Geographic Wall Map of the river (inserted in the book Running Dry), and when the Arizona water operators who served as one of many consultants learned that we were going to show that Arizona took more Colorado River water than any state, they dropped out of the project and refused to distribute the maps to their 7,000-member constituency. But it’s gotten better. As for both sides working together, environmental laws, more often public educational campaigns, and ultimately, a small crisis, such as looming water shortages to Arizona and Nevada, might serve to save the river. And yes, I believe there is hope.
SEE MORE: Check out Pete McBride’s stunning aerial photographs of Waterman’s trip down the Colorado at “The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict” at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.