Down the (Drier and Drier) Colorado
Last October, Will Stauffer-Norris and Zak Podmore set out on what would be a 113-day, 1,700-mile paddle trip down the Colorado River, from its source in Wyoming to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where the river once emptied. What they found was discouraging, but not surprising: As the main source of water for the American Southwest, much of the river is diverted for agricultural and municipal use, and it slows to a polluted trickle near the U.S./Mexico border, miles short of its original mouth at the Gulf of California.
Spotting an opportunity to raise awareness about conservation and water rights—and to paddle for months on end—the team organized a second trip that began this summer. Using water quality data, photographs and interviews with conservationists and stakeholders along the way, the team plans to create an interactive map of the entire Colorado, providing unprecedented detail about this vital ecosystem. We caught up with Stauffer-Norris on the river to learn more about their trips.
What prompted your Source to Sea rafting trip last autumn, and what was its goal?
Originally we just wanted to go on a long river trip, and my friend Zak had a permit for the Grand Canyon, so we planned around that. Then we found out that Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project was focusing on the Colorado River last year. So we grabbed some equipment from Walt Hecox, an environmental science professor [at Colorado College], to document the journey. We had this cool opportunity to raise awareness about the environmental issues the Colorado faces.
When you reached the end of the river, what did you find?
It dries up at the U.S./Mexico border. Ever since they finished Glen Canyon Dam [in northern Arizona] and created Lake Powell, it’s been on and off. For the most part, it’s dry. By the time you hit the border, it’s a tiny little creek, and Mexico takes whatever’s left.
What makes the Colorado River such an important part of the landscape?
Well, it’s the primary source of water for the entire Southwest; it provides drinking water for Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Denver.... And it’s a huge agricultural water supply—the vegetables you eat in wintertime come from Colorado River water, because they’re grown in [southern California’s] Imperial Valley. So it’s this balancing act between “We need to eat and we need to drink” and then “The river needs water in it, too.” Where do we find the balance between having a human population in the Southwest and preserving the river? Something like 30 million people rely on Colorado River water.
What was the hardest part of your Source to Sea trip?
You can read reports and books about how the river’s drying up, but when you actually have to portage your boat around a dam, it really drives it home. Toward southern Arizona, this huge river that we’d been riding for the past three months turns into a tiny little creek. When it’s basically a concrete canal and there are roads on both sides, and you’re going through cities and there’s no water left… well, it sucks.
What about your original trip led you to plan this follow-up expedition?
When we were here in the wintertime, we didn’t try to interview people; it was more about experiencing the river and the canyon. This time we decided to focus more on the people who work on or live by the river. We got a grant through the State of the Rockies Project to interview people and test water quality and make a map of the river. The goal is to raise awareness about river issues—especially for people our age, who wouldn’t necessarily read a technical report about the Colorado River, but might be more interested in seeing pictures of us running the rapids and learn something at the same time.
In addition to the online aspect, you took water samples and collected other data for an interactive map project. Has anybody done this sort of thing before?
The mapping technology isn’t commonplace. There’s one organization we’ve been working with called the Riverview Project, and their goal is to create a sort of Google Street View for rivers, basically. I think it's a novel approach.
What are your expectations for this project? What do you hope it will accomplish on a political level?
I’ve asked myself that question: What good are we actually doing? Everybody has different answers. Some people say, “We need more awareness,” while some say, “Awareness is bullshit, we need policy changes.” I think you need both—you need people working on policy, and you need people to realize where their water comes from. If more people realize where their water comes from, we’ll have done something useful.
How difficult is it to raft and camp for so long?
In a lot of ways, it’s easier than living in civilization; all you do is unpack your camp, set up your sleeping bag, cook dinner, and that’s it. You don’t have to worry about emails! I like the lifestyle. I think the hardest part is transitioning back to civilization or back to the river—making those transitions. Last time we did it, in the winter, everything would freeze every night and there wasn’t much sunlight. We were paddling 20 miles a day, sunup to sundown. This trip, it’s the middle of the summer and we have a big raft, so you can fit all kinds of food and beer on it and just hang out.
Follow the team’s journey at http://www.downthecolorado.org and https://twitter.com/downthecolorado. Also, check out a full-length film about the original Source to Sea trip below. For a beautiful slideshow of that trip, click here.