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Reservoirs along the river may never rise to previous levels. Utah's Lake Powell has a "bathtub ring" that rises at least 70 feet above the water. (Peter McBride)

The Colorado River Runs Dry

Dams, irrigation and now climate change have drastically reduced the once-mighty river. Is it a sign of things to come?

In 1922, conservationist Aldo Leopold paddled a canoe through the great delta at the mouth of the Colorado River. He wrote about a “wealth of fowl and fish” and “still waters...of a deep emerald hue.” In Leopold’s time, the delta stretched over nearly 3,000 square miles; today, it covers fewer than 250, and the only water flowing through it, except after heavy rains, is the runoff from alfalfa, lettuce and melon fields and pecan orchards.

The river has become a perfect symbol of what happens when we ask too much of a limited resource: it disappears. In fact, the Colorado no longer regularly reaches the sea.

Invasive plants, such as salt cedar and cattails, now dominate the delta, a landscape of seemingly endless mud flats where forests used to stand. And in the Gulf of California itself, shellfish, shrimp and waterfowl have declined dramatically as fresh water has dried up.

Peter McBride has spent two years photographing the great river, paddling a kayak through its headwaters, flying in small planes over cities and fields, rafting through the Grand Canyon and using his own two feet to traverse the delta. In his career, McBride, who lives near Basalt, Colorado, has taken pictures in 50 nations on six continents for magazines, books and films, but he relished the chance to turn his camera on the river that fed his childhood home, a Colorado cattle ranch. “I never knew much about where the river went and where it ended,” he says. In his work, McBride depicts not only the extraordinary scale of the human impact on the river but also the considerable beauty that remains.

McBride knew the delta was suffering, but he was surprised when he visited it for the first time. “I spent two weeks walking the most parched, barren earth you can imagine,” he recalls. “It’s sad to see the mighty Colorado River come to a dribble and end some 50 miles north of the sea.”

Sarah Zielinski is an assistant editor for Smithsonian. Peter McBride’s book The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict will be published in November 2010.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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