In this episode of the new Smithsonian magazine podcast, “There’s More to That,” writer and photographer Pete McBride—who once hiked the Grand Canyon from end to end and made an Emmy Award-nominated documentary film about the experience—walks us through the consequences of drought afflicting the Colorado River, one of America’s pivotal water sources. McBride, who grew up on a cattle ranch that relied on the Colorado River for its water, reflects on the profound and troubling changes that falling water levels portend, not just for lovers of nature but for the roughly 40 million Americans who get their drinking water from the Colorado whether they know it or not.
Chris Klimek, host: While Pete McBride was out reporting for Smithsonian magazine last year, he spent a night camping on the banks of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon, Utah. There in the canyon, he came across a natural formation called the “bathtub ring.”
Pete McBride, writer/photographer: And so the bathtub ring is this kind of white line that goes throughout Glen Canyon. … The water stained the sandstone cliffs with this kind of silty white.
Klimek: The bathtub ring wasn’t just something for Pete to marvel at. It was a piece of evidence.
McBride: This very bright, delineated, white bathtub ring, it represents the water we used to have.
Klimek: Pete is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, photographer, and writer who grew up right by the river in Colorado. And in his lifetime, he’s seen this once mighty river reduced to a trickle of its former self.
For the past hundred years, the river watershed has supplied drinking water to seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico and neighboring Indigenous communities. The river is long. Water rights are shared among Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada. That includes major cities hundreds of miles away, like Los Angeles. The river also waters more than 5 million acres of farmland and generates electric power for millions of homes. But a lot has changed since all this water was first divvied up.
McBride: To put it more simply, we basically thought the river was a large drink, a large glass of water. And we've since learned that over time that the river doesn't flow as consistently as they thought it did from the data they had in the early 1900s.
Klimek At the beginning of summer 2023, things got so dire that the federal government had to step in. The Biden administration brokered a temporary deal between all the stakeholders, offering concessions to states if they promised to use less water. Now, talks about what to do in the long term are underway.
In the meantime, a lot of summer rain and melting snowpack have helped the situation. But some scientists predict it would take about ten years of these wet conditions to end the water emergency in the Southwest. And climate change makes that unlikely.
From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There's More to That,” a podcast where we face today’s biggest issues with Smithsonian journalists as our guides. For this episode, we’ll hear about where things were at the beginning of the summer, and what Pete McBride found while water levels were dramatically low.
Klimek: When we connected with Pete to talk about drought, the rain was pouring down outside his window. During the course of the conversation, we learned why this particularly wet summer is just a drop in the bucket for the Colorado River watershed.
Klimek: So, you grew up around the Colorado River. Let's start with that. What was your relationship with the river like when you were a kid?
Pete McBride: I grew up on a cattle ranch at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. And so I actually grew up irrigating to put up grass hay for cattle.
So I was very aware of water and where it goes, and I think as I got older, I became more and more interested in how we use that water, where that water goes. And since then, when I became a journalist, photographer, filmmaker, I started doing documentaries and book projects about the river. I became intrigued with this lifeline that supports drinking water for 40 million Americans today.
Basically, 95 percent of our winter vegetables. So if you’ve never been to the Colorado River, but you like salad, pretty likelihood that you eat the Colorado River in the months of December and January. And when I learned of the state of this river, which I find so interesting … this river, it flowed to the sea for six million years.
It created one of the largest desert estuaries in North America. And during my lifetime, during my father's lifetime, we have turned it from this wild, uncontrollable kind of force of nature to this very regulated, dam-diverted, litigated, plumbed maze that has a symphony of straws on it.
And we've run it dry.
We've really brought the Colorado River to its knees, and now with climate change, and we’re in our second decade of drought. Yes, we had a record snowpack in Colorado and beyond this last year. But that's like having a child that gets a job for one year, you think it will suddenly get you out of debt?
This one year will not fix what has been a growing problem.
Klimek: As someone who's grown up around this river, how do you feel as you're tracking these dramatic changes?
McBride: What amazes me is how few people are aware of this.
Most people just do not realize that their water comes from this river system. It doesn't come from the tap. If you ask the average citizen in Phoenix or Los Angeles or Denver where their water comes from, most do not know that 50 percent of their water supply comes from the Colorado River.
So for me to see that, it's frustrating on a certain level, because we're just losing more and more connection to nature in our natural systems. The second note is that this remarkable mighty Colorado River that is the architect of the Grand Canyon … we have run it dry.
And I've seen that right on the front lines, because I've paddled the river to the sea, and then of course I've had to walk it to its completion … some hundred miles. I've done that a few times. And to see it denuded into a kind of a whisper and then dry up a hundred miles from the sea is pretty alarming.
When it reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, the river literally turns into just an irrigation ditch, usually filled with some sort of flotsam and plastic bottles and garbage. And then it just turns into sand, and it becomes a river of sand and dries up completely and then turns into this cracked-earth riverbed.
That is one of the biggest flyaway zones for migratory birds. So, it's a huge habitat loss for that element of our planet. To see that is alarming. Of course, most people don't get to that part of the river in Mexico, so they think, well it's, you know, it's a problem downstream. … It's not in my backyard.
However, today the two largest reservoirs in the country are Lake Mead and Lake Powell. They dropped to all-time records this last year, down to about 23 percent each. This snowpack has brought them up a little bit. I just looked at Lake Powell today. It's come up to 32 percent full. But that's still significantly low.
But then even up here in the headwaters, I'm up at 7,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the western side of the state here.
There's a lake called Crater Lake that was always brimming full when I was a child. I've seen that down to about 10 percent full of what it used to be. That's just turned into this little, like, trickle of water flowing through a mucky, I don't know, mess.
So it's on all our doorsteps, along the river.
Klimek: I want to back up and make sure listeners really understand how and when the water rights to the Colorado River were allocated. Can you tell us more about that 1922 treaty, please?
McBride: So in 1922, seven states came together … which is interesting because Native Americans were not considered citizens until 1925. So, many Native tribes were excluded from this agreement. But they divvied up the river into slices of pie, basically, for all seven states. But one significant element is they divided the river into two parts: the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin.
And then later Mexico was given their allocated amount for their agricultural needs, and, sadly, nothing was left for the river itself. And then climate change has made it hotter and drier. And so now we really have like a medium glass of water, but everyone has a straw set up for a large glass of water. And then we have antiquated policies on the river where if you don't use your water right, you will lose your water right.
So, there's a lot of agriculture being done just for the sake of keeping that valuable resource. And that is something that could definitely be updated.
Klimek: And there's another side to this, which is that the river is largely responsible for generating the electrical supply for much of that area. Can you talk about the impact that the falling water levels have had on the generation of electricity?
McBride: Absolutely. So, I was just actually down in the bowels of Hoover Dam, which was built in 1935. It's a remarkable piece of engineering that is next to Las Vegas, that's below the Grand Canyon. And it produces a lot of electricity for users in the grid in the Southwest. But because there's less water, the ability to create electricity with it is becoming more complicated.
Not only is there not enough electricity ahead of water to make as much electricity, but if water levels keep dropping at these reservoirs, there won't be enough water to run the turbines at all. And that's called “power pool.” That's when you don't have enough water. You start sucking air into the turbine in which they can cavitate and create problems. You get even lower than that. It's called “deadpool.” That's when the water level is even below the intake. So you can't get water past the dam. We'd have to come in and bore holes underneath, say, Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell.
So that's, um, kind of the dark, ominous future people talk about. At the rate we're going, it's potentially not that far in the distant future. Hopefully we don't get there, we find ways to manage this. But it wasn't discussed a few years ago, and now it's brought up frequently.
Klimek: I really want to underline this. It's not simply that, well, the turbines won't work because the water levels are too low and then they'll start working when the water level comes back in. It's the water level falls to a certain point. Then the power generation capacity is permanently damaged, and without a major refit it's not going to work anymore, even if the water level rebounds somehow.
McBride: Correct. So, for instance, Las Vegas used to pull their water from Lake Mead, which is the reservoir above Hoover Dam, and the water level got so low that their intake pipe now sits above the water line. So, a few years ago, they had to bore underneath Lake Mead, which is called the third straw, and it just goes to show how low these reservoir systems are getting and how we have to retrofit. They're complicated. They're expensive. So, water levels have reached a point where we're doing development projects that are in the billions of dollars just to get water to the tap.
Klimek: I do want to talk a little bit about your photographs and your text piece for the magazine.
You even photographed some trash that people just left there carelessly decades ago—that acquires a kind of beauty, right? There's an old ring tab from a beer can like you don't see anymore, and a Kool-Aid can. Can you talk about what it means to look into the human history of that place alongside, you know, dinosaur bones and things.
You're also seeing relics of the much more recent past that maybe indicate the attitudes that people have about this precious resource.
McBride: It was a fascinating story to do. So, Lake Powell, which sits above Glen Canyon Dam, I learned to water ski there as a boy, and I saw it at its highest level in 1983. And my father was able to walk up some of its side canyons in 1968 when it was flooding. And he told me these stories about these beautiful cottonwood forests and archeology and glens and alcoves, et cetera.
And so when I went back last year and did this story, I was able to walk ostensibly in my father's footsteps through some of these exact same forests, which remarkably are still standing. They're not alive; they're dead. They've been drowned and underwater my entire life, and they've reemerged. And so this was a silver lining story: To see Glen Canyon returning in some of its majesty was really beautiful and eye-opening.
We actually saw a freshwater orchid … didn't even know it existed. It's already returning.
And yes, there was drought residue and silt and garbage. And I saw a Kool-Aid can that I had to look up on the internet. They haven't made a Kool-Aid can since I think 1974. So, it was like walking through a time machine.
Klimek: Have you been back since?
McBride: I just went back to Lake Powell. I didn't go to the same places I did in the story … places called “Cathedral in the Desert,” which again was underwater my whole life. But it has emerged. And just to give listeners a description, it's this, it's almost like a natural sandstone cathedral.
You walk up this side canyon, and before you see it, you hear this little kind of babbling brook. And, normally you don't hear spring water in Lake Powell. I never did as a kid, because everything's underwater. But you hear it and then you walk up and you come around an oxbow … kind of where the river turned on itself.
And you walk up into this chamber of sandstone that has an alcove arch on one side and another alcove arch on the other. That it’s barely enough, there's hardly a gap in the sky above you, but they do not connect. And then there's this amazing ribbon of trickling water that flows down through a polished kind of sliver of line that splits the two alcoves.
And then at certain times of day there's just a beam of light that shines down through it …
Klimek: Wow ...
McBride: Makes this kind of wonderful reflective kind of hues of purple and orange. And it's very humbling. It's, you could see why they called it “Cathedral in the Desert.” It feels as magical, as majestic, as any man-made cathedral I've ever been in. That spring, that oasis and that cathedral feeling have been under a hundred feet of water my entire life.
And it's just emerged.
That was really interesting to see. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir of the United States, is downstream. I was just walking the shoreline of that. … Unbelievable to see it. Houseboat docks that are just parked in the middle of nowhere. You can't even see the lake from it. It's just a bit mind-boggling.
Klimek: Did you encounter anything that was just inexplicable? Boat docks kind of makes sense, and refuse. But, you know, was there anything that was just weird? “How the hell did this end up here?”
McBride: I walked up one side canyon where it just, it seems just bizarre. You're far from the lake and you're walking up and you come around a corner and there's a jet ski, like an abandoned crashed jet ski. And then you go further up and there's a boat. And then you go a little further up and there's hand-carved steps in the side of the sandstone going up.
And those were called moki steps. They were hand-carved 900 years ago as the ancient exit route to get out of the canyon. So you juxtapose a sunken, trashed jet ski next to 900-year-old ancient Puebloan steps. And it kind of snaps time, a bit like a rubber band. You're like, “Whoa, where am I?”
Klimek: It must be a very palpable reminder that in, you know, geologic time … 900 years is nothing. Right?
McBride: Exactly. And on that point, there's a huge footprint of ancient Puebloans—Native Americans—that lived in … around the Colorado River system. Thirty tribes today still live along the riverbanks. And many people wondered what happened to their culture, where they’d go in the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon, downstream. … Many of them are still there.
But there's evidence of huge drought, and so many of them left. It's so dry in the Colorado River Basin today, they say it's the driest it's been in 1,200 years.
If we lived 1,200 years ago, most of us would've gotten up and moved. But because of our technology and ability to move water in places like Vegas to spend a billion dollars to do a third straw pipeline … we stay.
I often think of how interesting that is, that we have hunkered in to stay in a part of the world, that we love it because of its, you know, vistas and warm weather, et cetera. But, if we didn't have the conveniences we have today, we would've been packing up and going elsewhere pretty quickly.
Klimek: Do you have a favorite photograph from the series that you think maybe expresses this idea, this sort of paradox? That we've created this, this technology that enables us to expand in areas maybe we weren't meant to? Maybe we should have used that technology to a more sustainable purpose.
McBride: Let's see … up a little place called Willow Canyon. I walked up and there was a lawn chair perfectly set up as if it was waiting for me. Obviously blown off of somebody's boat, but it felt like it had blown off and the wind had opened it up and it had placed it under this nice little shady spot, but it was very rusty from years of being underwater.
There were also a lot of golf balls, which was surprising. Apparently people have been ripping one irons and one woods off the deck of houseboats. There were a few boats, too, that I found remarkable to see. It made you question what happened there, because they had obviously sunk. It's always sort of weird to see a sunken boat wherever you are.
Klimek: Is there anything in the near term that, as someone who is your entire life and whose career has been so shaped by the river, are there any harbingers or benchmarks that we might see in the next year or so that could help us predict whether things are headed in the right direction, or whether just a more severe kind of fix is going to be required?
McBride: I think communication, truthful communication between states and users, I think more of it is going to be critical. Every time we do a new Colorado River adaptation policy plan, it seems that by the time we get it achieved, we're already in need of a new one.
So this, this metaphor of the Band-Aid on top of Band-Aids …
McBride: … is really getting tricky. And I say “truthful” because there's been a lot of discussions that people are denying the scientific evidence, the atmospheric evidence of the actual amount of water in this system. And we need to have the hard, uncomfortable discussions about this that includes everybody on an equitable level.
But I think with a changing climate and more volatile weather, we're all starting to realize that maybe Mother Nature is a little more powerful than we think, or thought. And a thing like the Colorado River is really symbolic of systems all over the planet. People are dealing with these water challenges everywhere.
And, of course, water is that one limited resource, which is very limited, and it's the one resource we can't live without. We can live without oil, and we wouldn't like it, perhaps, but try going a day without water.
Klimek: Yeah. So really it's not so much that you, Pete McBride, are intimately connected to the Colorado River. It's that we all are.
McBride: We very much all are, and, whether you're listening to this in Washington, D.C., and you go out and have a Caesar salad at lunch or for dinner … it’s very likely that romaine lettuce came from a farm that I was standing on a few weeks ago trying to photograph. And that is grown with Colorado River water.
Klimek: Thank you so much for talking to us, Pete.
McBride: Thank you, Chris. It was a privilege.
Before we say goodbye, we wanted to send you into the rest of your week prepared for a party! Here at Smithsonian magazine, we’re constantly learning a lot of weird facts … and we want to put them to use! Each episode, we’re going to tap into our stable of reporters and editors to provide you with fun facts to whip out at your next dinner party. Today’s fact comes from the ancient Middle East … and it’s best served over a glass of wine.
Arik Gabbai: Hi, my name is Arik Gabbai. I’m an editor at Smithsonian magazine. A fun fact that I learned recently is that the famous biblical phrase “The land of milk and honey” probably did not refer to honey from bees—as I realized I had long assumed—but rather honey made by boiling and straining dates.
Evidently, honey was just one reason that date palms were revered in the ancient Middle East. They were used for food, also for shade, for timber, even for using their fibers for making ropes and baskets. And, perhaps most appropriately for a dinner party fact, an antiquity: Date fruit was used not only to make honey but it was also fermented to make wine. The Babylonians apparently were especially big fans. They left behind recipes for making date wine and also warnings about terrible hangovers. Unfortunately, no reliable ancient hangover cures found as of yet.
“There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. You can find a link to see Pete McBride's spectacular photography and writing about the Colorado River in our show notes, or at Smithsonianmag.com.
From the magazine, our team is Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly.
From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Terence Bernardo and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales.
Episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz.
Our music is from APM Music.
I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening.