Traversing the mighty Colorado River

A writer sets out on a geographic journey to understand the imperiled water source.


The funny thing about the newest book on the Colorado River is that it is not actually new at all.

Yes, it is true that Where the Water Goes has a 2017 copyright, plus a forward-looking author in New Yorker contributor David Owen and a dust jacket decked in praise from contemporary writers including Bill Bryson. But it is also true that the story within the book’s pages is an old one. It is the story of a Colorado River novice setting out to make sense of this great and imperiled Western river by tracing its length from source to sea and pondering, along the way, how its waters are divvied up to serve roughly 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico. Which is to say that it is also the story of Frank Waters (1946), Philip Fradkin (1981), Colin Fletcher (1998), Jonathan Waterman (2010), Pete McBride (2011), William Stauffer-Norris (2011), and others.

Like these previous writers, Owen decides to make his way down the river because he has experienced a hydrologic awakening. Recalling his college days in Colorado Springs, Owen realizes how oblivious he was as a young man to the provenance of the water that came out of his tap — especially the endless gallons he applied to people’s lawns at a summer job. “All I knew was that every time I attached a hose to a spigot and turned it on, I could run it full force until it was time to go home,” he writes.

Decades later, now an established environmental writer, Owen sets out on a journey of self-education designed to decipher, from top to toe, the “vast and intricately interconnected system” that is the Colorado River. He starts in a chartered airplane over the river’s Rocky Mountain headwaters, ends in a borrowed truck in its delta in Mexico, and proceeds in spurts by rental car in between.

A lone boat sits next to a trickle of the Colorado River in Mexico.
National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

If Owen knows that his journey echoes those of other source-to-sea storytellers, he does not let on. And that’s too bad, really, because Owen’s telling would gain from acknowledging these kindred spirits and explaining what sets his own work apart from theirs. (For starters, Owen’s account is the most accessible for Western water newbies; he deftly explains oddities that range from “wet” water versus “paper” water to the trade-offs involved in boosting agricultural water efficiency.)

Owen’s method has its strengths. Because his narrative runs geographically rather than chronologically, it jumbles the typical order of a Colorado River tome. Rather than starting in the abstract with famous historical figures, Owen grounds us immediately in the “audacity of the Grand Ditch,” one of the river’s first major diversions, hand-dug in the late 1800s to send water from alpine streams to farms on Colorado’s Front Range. Owen’s road-trip framework also gives him room to ponder topics that don’t always make the pages of Colorado River books, including the hard-to-believe history of the Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear fracking experiments in the river’s headwaters.

Most importantly, the source-to-sea structure helps the reader see the Colorado River as a whole, and to grasp the complexity of our cumulative impacts upon it. By the time Owen meets an Imperial Valley lettuce farmer, we have already contemplated flood irrigation in a Grand Junction vineyard. By the time Owen digs into Las Vegas’ water challenges, we have already heard about Denver’s. And by the time Owen explains water-quality issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, we have already learned about salinity as far upstream as the Dolores River. That makes it more difficult to blame any individual irrigator, city or tributary for the woes at the river’s terminus, and it shows that solutions to the river’s overuse will not come easily or unilaterally.

It is a bit odd, however, that Owen traces the Colorado River without ever spending much time in a boat. By skipping the depths of the Grand Canyon and other protected stretches, Owen never experiences the river wild. Unlike other source-to-sea chroniclers, he also does not physically struggle through rapids, reservoirs, tamarisk or mudflats to follow its path. Perhaps as a result, Owen expresses no grief when he reaches the spot where the once-mighty Colorado disappears into the sand long before reaching the Gulf of California. Instead, he writes matter-of-factly, “ATV tracks ran back and forth across the streambed, and there were many places where we could step from one side to the other without getting our feet wet.”

Still, by the river’s end, Owen has accomplished what he set out to do. He has figured out, literally, where the water goes. He has also explained it to the rest of us in clear and compelling terms. In a final chapter, he even goes one step further and ponders a handful of potential remedies to the river’s overuse. Along the way, Owen maps out a self-guided field trip that others can follow virtually (as I did, via Google Earth) or in a vehicle. And that’s a path toward a greater hydrologic awakening that we would all benefit from following.

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