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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -