Image credit: The main stem of the Colorado snakes through the valley floor in Rocky Mountain National Park. Before the river reaches this valley, most of the water has already been diverted to Colorado’s Front Range. ©PETE MCBRIDE

Spring 2024

Chasing a Troubled River

By Rona Marech
Spring 2024: Chasing a Troubled River

The mighty Colorado River and its tributaries run through seven states and 10 national park sites and provide water and electricity to millions of people. But as photographer Pete McBride documents in a new book, the river is drying up, and the need to correct course grows more urgent every day.

I’ve known the Colorado River my entire life,” Pete McBride writes in “The Colorado River: Chasing Water.” “I grew up in its headwaters and learned to swim in alpine lakes and tributaries fed by Rocky Mountain snow.” So when he was searching for a close-to-home story to cover after two decades working as a globe-trotting photojournalist, he turned to his backyard. McBride’s father, who moved the family to a high-mountain cattle ranch in the 1970s, suggested the river project after observing how the snowpack and meltwater that nourished their land were changing. “Around 2007, I started following — quite literally — our irrigation supply as it returned to the creek and then to the Colorado River,” McBride writes. “Over the next 15 years, that personal mission would become a cornerstone for much of my life’s work.”

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McBride writes that he has hiked, paddled, floated and flown across every mile of the Colorado’s main stem and documented nearly all the tributaries, diversions and dams of a river that originates in Rocky Mountain National Park and, among its many claims to fame, carved the Grand Canyon. In “The Colorado River,” McBride showcases a broad selection of the hundreds of thousands of images he’s captured over years of following the twists, triumphs and trials of the waterway.

In the 21st century, the story of the river is complicated and often grim. People in seven U.S. and two Mexican states depend on the river for drinking water; 30 Native Tribes also retain water rights, though in many cases, their access is limited. The river also irrigates some of America’s most productive farmland and provides hydropower to millions in the West. But experts have been concerned about overuse for more than 100 years, and water levels continue to drop as climate change fuels a 24-year megadrought and reduces the snowpack that feeds the river. Meanwhile, many municipalities and agricultural operations that rely on the river continue to expand, and a long-term agreement among states — including California, Arizona and Nevada — that would govern the distribution of water and require cuts in usage is in the works, though the outcome is uncertain. The river “is loved and litigated to the last drop — even before a snowflake or raindrop hits the earth,” McBride explains in his book.

This is one of the most predictable environmental disasters in history, said Ernie Atencio, NPCA’s Southwest regional director. “People have seen it coming for decades, but now it has absolutely hit a crisis level because of climate change,” he said. “We just can’t ignore it anymore.”

But finding solutions that meet the needs of all the stakeholders is a nearly impossible task. Which towns, cities, states, agricultural concerns, corporations or individuals should be required to reduce their water and electricity use? Are there dams, including Glen Canyon (which many environmentalists have long despised), that should be removed to redress water flow and repair riparian ecosystems? Could interventions like these allow the Colorado to once again reach the sea in Mexico?

As NPCA gears up to launch a new Colorado River campaign, it must consider both the big picture and more specific questions related to the 10 national park sites that the river and its tributaries touch. (In addition to Rocky Mountain and Grand Canyon, those include — moving roughly from headwaters downstream — Dinosaur National Monument, Curecanti National Recreation Area, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Rainbow Bridge National Monument and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.) How can NPCA support the National Park Service in producing a comprehensive vision for the parks of the Colorado River Basin? How should the Park Service manage historical objects, ancient cliff dwellings, rock art panels and other archaeological sites that are increasingly exposed as water levels drop? What should the agency do about the terrestrial ecosystems that are bouncing back as parkland that was submerged reappears? At what cost do you try to save the humpback chub and razorback sucker, threatened and endangered fish that NPCA and others have been fighting to protect in the Grand Canyon?

People have seen it coming for decades, but now it has absolutely hit a crisis level because of climate change. … We just can’t ignore it anymore.

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“There will come a point very soon where we’re going to have to make some hard choices,” Atencio said.

When we ask too much of the river, it answers by disappearing, McBride writes. But he contends that for all the bony landscapes, misguided meddling and over-allocation of water rights, all hope is not lost. “I’ve witnessed collaboration and communication bring about improved efficiencies that raise flows, restore habitats, and even bring endangered fish back from the brink,” he writes. “Of course, there are a lot of rapids ahead. And seeing a resilient, equitable line through them will take creativity and teamwork. But after years of studying this American lifeline, from its snowcapped peaks to its ancient canyons and even its ghostly end, I know I’ll keep trying to testify for the magnificence and fragility of my beloved backyard river.”

About the author

  • Rona Marech Editor-in-Chief

    Rona Marech is the editor-in-chief of National Parks, NPCA’s award-winning magazine. Formerly a staff writer at the Baltimore Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle, Rona joined NPCA in 2013.

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 issue

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