A Grand Disappointment


This May, National Geographic Press published Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River. It's by Jonathan Waterman, who lives on 20 acres near Carbondale, Colo.
As someone who follows water issues, I wanted to like this book. But I couldn't.
That's because I ran across so many errors at the start of his foot-and-float trip at the top of the river in Colorado's Grand County. That's the part of the Colorado I know reasonably well, thanks to the four years I lived there.
The river starts in Rocky Mountain National Park, where there's a ditch -- it was dug before the Park was established -- built to divert water to farmers on the Eastern Slope. Waterman tells us that water in the ditch is "pumped uphill at a one percent grade."
You can pump water up a closed pipe, but not up an open ditch.
Downstream a few miles, he's camped just below Lake Granby and observes that "in 1977, David Emmert was arrested here for trespassing after floating through the private premises of a rancher." No, Emmert was arrested about 20 miles downstream from "here," on Con Ritschard's ranch near Parshall.
Waterman says "the case went to the local court, which couldn't interpret the law." Actually, Emmert was convicted of trespassing in the local court. We read that "The rancher eventually appealed his case to the Colorado Supreme Court," when it was Emmert who did the appealing. Why would rancher Con Ritschard, who got the trespassing conviction he wanted, appeal the case?
The paddling author reaches the junction with the Fraser River, and complains that it is diminished partly on account of Williams Fork Reservoir. That reservoir is on the Williams Fork River, not the Fraser.
He encounters Gore Canyon, proposed as a dam site early in the 20th century. President Theodore Roosevelt quashed the dam and "permitted the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad a right of way through Gore Canyon instead." No, the route went to the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway, which aimed to compete against the Rio Grande.
That's about as far as my intimate knowledge of the Colorado River goes, but if Waterman got this much wrong in the first 47 pages, I have to wonder how much credence to give his ensuing accounts of territory that is unfamiliar to me.
Granted, nobody gets everything right. But I expected better from National Geographic.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

Running Dry; A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River
jon waterman
jon waterman
Jun 27, 2010 10:14 PM
Dear Ed,
I’m the author of Running Dry, the subject of your recent blog. Since it’s the author rather than the publisher who bears the responsibility for getting the facts straight, please address me rather than National Geographic Books. I have a further response for the points in your blog, if you’d like to contact me: jon@sopris.net

I vouch for the authenticity of the book’s message, the painstaking research that it took to write it, and the number of experts who read and critiqued drafts. So I encourage you to issue a charitable mindedness—absent from your last blog—to continue reading at page 48 and join me on a voyage of discovery to the river’s end in Mexico. The book, moreover the river’s problems, are not going away and we’re all going to have to work _together_ to fix them.

Sincerely Yours,

Jonathan Waterman
babies and bathwater
Jun 28, 2010 12:04 PM
I reviewed the first edition of Reisner's Cadillac Desert for a Montana newspaper. The book was rife with similar errors: he had the Colorado running down the face of Long's Peak, he knew nothing of Sacajawea. I was working in Colorado while writing the review, and whenever I handed the book to anyone, he or she would open it at random and mutter 'well, he's go that wrong.' Despite all those complaints, though, Reisner's book survives as an archetypal text on this important topic. Subsequent editions corrected the errors of the first due, in part, to patient readers submitting corrections . . . rather than having the book across the room unread.
Running Dry
Gary Wockner
Gary Wockner
Jun 29, 2010 08:54 PM
Hello Ed,

The Save the Colorado campaign (savethecolorado.org) had the good fortune of hosting Jon Waterman at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins on June 28th. Waterman spoke eloquently to the standing-room only crowd -- he entertained us with wit and knowledge, and it was a great evening.

I had the opportunity to read "Running Dry" as a galley copy prior to publication. I felt that the author's experience of being the first person in history to travel the river from the source to the sea was an absolutely tremendous story. In addition, Jon weaves in an intriguing personal story amidst the epic adventure that also drew me into the book's pages.

I would call Jon Waterman a real live "expert" on the Colorado River -- he walked it, paddled it, slept beside it. This man knows the actual living, flowing river. In addition, Jon seems like the kind of guy (as does National Geographic as publisher) who would relish any and all constructive criticism and the opportunity to address what might be a few factual errors in future printings.

I encourage all readers to do with Jon's book what Jon did with the Colorado River -- go all the way from start to finish, and then sit back and see what we have all learned together and what difference we can make with our new found knowledge. Maybe, just maybe, we can Save The Colorado River.

Thank you, Ed, for the opportunity to post under your blog. And thank you, Jon, for your great book and for all of your work protecting the Colorado River.

Gary Wockner, PhD
Campaign Coordinator
Save the Colorado Campaign
A comment on comments
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Jul 02, 2010 10:54 AM
I'll try to address some of the issues raised in the comments -- and I'm glad to see that there are a few.

1) I did read the entire book, clear down to the Sea of Cortez. It is a grand adventure and an epic journey. I confined my comments here to the first 47 pages because that's the part of the Colorado River I know best, on account of four years of residence, mostly working at the Kremmling newspaper, in Colorado's Grand County (1974-78).

2) There is an implication that if I have problems with a text, I should correspond privately with the author, rather than make my issues public. Of course, this is the appropriate course when a writer or editor pays me to vet an unpublished manuscript, which has happened a few times.

But in this case, Running Dry was already before the public. I'm a member of that public, and it's appropriate to address public material in a public forum.

Over the years, I've written millions of words for public consumption. Sometimes I get things wrong, and I take my lumps. as I deserve.

3) Another implication is that if the author's heart is in the right place, then I should ignore trifling factual errors in a non-fiction work. Others can judge whether what I addressed was trifling; I figure that if it's worth putting between hard covers, then it isn't a trifle.

But you don't have to convince me that the Colorado River is overworked and further threatened on many fronts. You do need to convince ranchers like Con Ritschard (I don't know whether he is still alive, but Con and Gladys were wonderful people when we knew them in Kremmling). And I don't think you do that by moving his ranch or misrepresenting his role in a legal appeal.