Will the Colorado River reach the Gulf of California once more?

by John Trotter

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Last month, Colorado River water made it one step further in the journey from its headwaters in the Colorado Rockies all the way to the Gulf of California, which it has not done regularly since the 1960s. The experimental, and temporary, flow is meant to help restore a delta ecosystem starved of water by over-use and dams for many decades. New York-based photographer John Trotter spent 10 days at the Delta in Mexico to document the historic releases (for background, see our story "New Hope for the Delta").

When Trotter began documenting the Colorado River 13 years ago, he was still recovering from a 1997 traumatic brain injury, which continues to affect his life today. That recovery became part of the inspiration for photographing the Delta. We spoke with Trotter about his impressions of the recent water releases and what the ongoing story of the Colorado River Delta means to him.

How it started

I kind of wanted to do something that was bigger than my own experience. I read a High Country News article (on the Delta) by Michelle Nijhuis in 2000. I knew about Colorado River politics, I’d read Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, but that HCN story humanized it for me. The Colorado River is so important to the whole equation of civilization. I taught Spanish to myself on some CDs and I got it together to go down to Mexico. I thought, ‘However I want to figure out this river, it seems like the best place to go is down there where it stops.’

It wasn’t a real conscious plan. But the very first day of the project in 2001 was on the four-year anniversary of my attack. I just felt like every year (after the 1997 incident) was traumatic whenever that day would come around. I felt like the best thing I could do would be to be photographing.

On his latest trip

I didn’t have an assignment. I knew this thing was going to happen and suddenly the next thing I know, the pulse release is going to be within a matter of weeks. I said, ‘God, this may be a once in a lifetime thing.’ You can’t really know yet.

I think the science about it is pretty interesting – trying to figure out just how wide the water was going to spread through the channel, how deep, and the rate. That’s interesting, but to me it’s also about these people who live down there. I’ve always thought the experience of the river down there is so different from how people experience it in Las Vegas (and other places in the U.S.). Here’s this dry river channel that is just sort of there; the younger people had never seen water go through there.

There were pretty unpopulated areas where the river was going. It wasn’t easy to get there. Sometimes, I’d get the best information I could and then I’d go out looking for the river. No one really knew how fast it was going to be moving. I remember going to one place for three days in a row, and there was just no river. But on the third day, I saw three SUVs and a National Geographic film crew and all these local people out to see the (flooded) road.

The biggest town on the river, San Luis Río Colorado – here’s this town where Río Colorado is half the name of the town, and there wasn’t a river there most of the time. Suddenly the river was there and everyone came out. There were big crowds of people, kids splashing around. Guys were racing around with ATV’s, being crazy and drinking beer; it was like a carnival. People were just ecstatic to see it.

They were asking me because I’m an American, because the river comes from up where I’m from, whether this is going to be permanent: ‘How long’s it going to stay like this?’ I told them, ‘It’s, like, two months of this.’ And we’ll see whether it will it happen again.

Along the way

From 2009 on, I decided I was going to photograph from my folding bicycle. I pulled a suitcase with stroller wheels on the sides, so it became a trailer behind my bike around Las Vegas, in western Colorado, through Moab, in the Imperial Valley, from Palm Springs to Yuma.

I found that (being) on my bicycle changed my photography. That country out there (in the West) invites you to photograph in big sweeping ways and you miss details. Slowing down the pace of passing through the territory, vast as it is, you get to see more of it and notice it.

I’ve been looking over pictures from years ago and seeing how they relate to (new) photos from a different part of the river, seeing how they actually work together. When you’re down in the Delta and see all the sand and dust, you know it’s all from up the river somewhere ages and ages ago. The more I see that, I think of how it’s symbolic of the way the whole watershed is so inter-related.

When they opened those gates on (Morelos) dam and let water back into the main channel on the river, it kind of engaged those people. It brought them back into the mainstream of all the other people who are living along it in Moab or Grand Junction or Needles or Tucson. All these people are party to this very over-allocated river.

I came to realize that people, especially here in the East, they don’t even know that it’s the same river that I’m talking about. That the one going through the Grand Canyon is the same one that goes to the Delta in Mexico.

Where his project, and the river, go from here

I don’t really know that anybody can say what this is going to mean in the long term for the river. There’s a lot of negotiation and science that’s still ahead of us. I’m still getting my mind around it just looking at the photos.

Every time I go, I think this is the last time. But this last time, I just let go of that and thought, ‘I may come back.’ This is part of my life now. I’ve never really been anywhere else in Mexico. I always end up in the same spot.

I think people in general, no matter what their political stripe, believe we can actually undo some of this stuff we’ve messed up. (As Michelle’s 2000 story explained,) La Cienaga was a dried out former wetland. I guess the Bureau of Reclamation built a dam and flooded farmland and now it’s the best remaining wetland in the lower Colorado. There was something hopeful about that.

Looking back, I kind of needed something like that at that point in my life (when I started photographing the Colorado). Here’s something where there was potential for redemption. It’s something I think that still appeals to people in general – that we can redeem ourselves and life can get better. And it’s still a redemption story. All these people have been working so hard to make this happen – this pulse release and putting water back in the river that doesn’t go to the ocean any more and seeing what’ll happen.

This is still a work in progress.

Words as told to and edited by Tay Wiles, the online editor of High Country News. Photographs edited by John Trotter and Andrew Cullen, associate designer of High Country News. Trotter's Instagram username is unamericain. Correction: The original version of this story indicated that water recently released had already reached the ocean, when in fact, that water continues to make its way through the delta toward the ocean, as of April 15.

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