The Natural History museum's latest IMAX 3D film, "Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk," tells the sad tale of the Colorado River. Treasured for its beauty and relied upon by millions for its natural resources, the river is not what it used to be.
The Colorado river is the main water source for 30 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico. But starting in the 1920s, the mighty river was dammed and the water diverted to serve the needs of cities like Las Vegas that seemed to be sprouting up in the middle of nowhere. Now, the river trickles to a stop nearly fifty miles north of its original estuary above the Sea of Cortez. Once home to thousands of unique bird and fish species, the estuary no longer exists. (See "Running Dry" by Sarah Zielinski from our October issue.)
"The river continues to get worse and the water levels continue to sink," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last week at a preview of the film. Kennedy is President of the Board of Directors at the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental network that monitors rivers and lakes on six continents to help keep them clean and healthy. His dedication and devotion to the river stems from a trip Kennedy made to the river as a young boy with his father, the late Robert F. Kennedy.
"The drought levels continue," said Kennedy. "We're still building golf courses in Scottsdale and Phoenix and encouraging policies that promote the profligate use of water throughout the West. It's just a train wreck waiting to happen."
The star of the film is National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, an old friend of Kennedy's from their days at Harvard. He and Kennedy bring their college-bound daughters on a rafting trip. They sift through the environmental changes to the river along the way, to the tune of a water-themed soundtrack by the Dave Matthews Band.
Their journey delivers expansive 3D views from the precipices of the Grand Canyon and live white water footage of the group as they paddle the river's remaining rapids. With the help of Shannon, a Native river guide, Davis and crew compare old photos to the present scenery. They find that invasive vegetation has taken over in spots where the ancestral Pueblo people once grew their crops. In other places along the river, sand banks are visible, the water gone. A white "bathtub ring" looms above everything on the rock flanking the river. All of it reminding the rafters (and the audience) of how much water the river has lost (up to 130 feet in the past decade alone).
"It's really a tragedy of global proportions," said Kennedy, who is promoting smart, energy practices, such as the use of low-flow toilets and shower heads. Says Kennedy, "the question is, how long is it going to take?"
"Grand Canyon Adventure: A River at Risk" is now showing at the Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater in Natural History.