As The Colorado Independent has been reporting, the state is developing a new master water plan. And as David Owen makes plain in a signature New Yorker piece due out this week on the Colorado River, the state had better be making a new water plan — as should all six of the other states served by perhaps the spindliest of the world’s great rivers.
In reporting the story, Owen traveled the river’s full length, from the headwaters below the misty Never Summer Mountains near the Wyoming border to the Gulf of California in Mexico. He peppers his must-read portrait with indelible statistics.
Eighty per cent of Colorado’s precipitation falls on the western half of the state, yet eighty-five per cent of the population lives to the east, in what’s known as the mountains’ rain shadow.
The Colorado River isn’t huge. It’s nearly a thousand miles shorter than the Mississippi and only a fraction as wide, but it’s a crucial resource for a surprisingly large part of the United States. A congressman in 1928 called it “intrinsically the most valuable stream in the world.” It and its tributaries flow through or alongside seven Western states—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California— before crossing into Mexico near Yuma, Arizona. It supplies water to approximately thirty-six million people, including residents not just of Boulder and Denver but also of Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles, several of which are hundreds of miles from its banks. It irrigates close to six million acres of farmland, much of which it also created, through eons of silt deposition. It powers the hydroelectric plants at the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, is the principal source for the country’s two biggest man-made reservoirs, and supports recreational activities that are said to be worth twenty-six billion dollars a year. Some of its southern sections attract so many transient residents during the winter that you could almost believe it had overflowed its banks and left dense alluvial deposits of motorboats, Jet Skis, dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, trailers, mobile homes, fifth wheels, and R.V.s.
The Colorado’s flow is so altered and controlled that in some ways the river functions more like a fourteen-hundred-mile-long canal.
Running across the top of the first page of the essay is a photograph of Lake Mead in Nevada. It’s another in a growing collection of photos of our planet’s draining and evaporating inland bodies of water.
Remember the Aral Sea in central Asia? It was once enormous and deep. It is now a go-to icon of the planet’s human-era evolution.
Here’s a photo of one of the “ghost boats” left to balance on the dry scrubland that was the sea’s bottom. Camels set against exposed rusted hulls is a common motif in photos of the former dream-like oasis.
Snapshots of the new Aral Sea desert began arriving on Flickr years ago. Abandoned Soviet ships and ship parts look like variations on the half-buried Planet of the Apes “Forbidden Zone” Statue of Liberty — ironic artifacts of human civilization. Looking at the photos, you felt the urge to tamp down the anxiety welling under your ribs by reading them as just another advertisement of typically heedless blind-eyed anti-environmentalist Soviet industrial development.
Photos today of Lake Mead’s exposed bottom — dry and gray and cracked like elephant skin — aren’t as universally shocking as those of the Aral Sea wasteland. But they’re shocking to those of us who live in the American west.
Top photo: Colorado River in Arizona detail Jamie Davies via Flickr. Detail of Lake Mead’s cracked bottom taken from Brian Frank’s photo for the New Yorker.