At 15, I had the opportunity to join a three week rafting trip down the Colorado River, under the crimson canopy of the Arizona sky and through the majestic red castles of the Grand Canyon. I jumped off 60 foot cliffs, slept next to white scorpions, photographed black condors from a few feet away, and watched in terror as one of our adrenaline-hungry rafters handled a rattle snake. It’s hard to describe in words the river’s emotional, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation.
Left: Grand Canyon,” in pen and ink, 18” x12”, by Cedar Attanasio.
Last Sunday, I relived my trip by watching Grand Canyon Adventure, which has amazing rafting footage, vividly depicted in 3D Imax. The movie features great commentary by Wade Davis and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who narrate the rafting adventure with information on the Colorado River and its exploitation for hydropower and agriculture. I needed Davis and Kennedy’s commentaries, because rafting the Grand Canyon–only a short section of the Colorado River’s 1,500 mile path–didn’t teach me everything that I needed to know about freshwater rivers.
All travels inform the spirit and the mind in some way, but for the geographer, they also serve as nodes of understanding, starting points in a wider web of cultural and biological systems that can only be understood through study (which usually means the abstraction of studying maps or reading books, both of which are summarized or paraphrased expressions of what exists in the field).
The Grand Canyon is really a stepping stone to understanding the Colorado and water issues as a whole. Grand Canyon Adventure inspired me to learn more. The first great resource I found was an interactive map of the Colorado River, recently produced for the National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative. The map integrates multiple layers of information about the hundreds of miles of river ways and elements like dams, canals, and canyons. Looking at this map, exploring it, interrogating it, I saw past my anecdotal rafting experience, and gained a greater understanding of the river system, and its connections with the natural and human worlds. The Freshwater Initiative has information on rivers, including cool videos about giant fish, tips on saving water, and a quiz game, that teaches about water consumption (and tools for visualizing volume that are pretty cool).
All of these resources helped me connect my rafting experience with the bigger picture. Unlike other rivers in the Southwest–the San Juan, the Pecos, or the Canadian–of the damned Colorado River is colorless and cold, its red silt trapped and its water chilled hundreds of feet below the sun in the depths of the dam’s reservoirs. You know right away that something is wrong with the colorless water, because colorado is an old Spanish word for “colored reddish.” But the effects of the dams are not just aesthetic. Nor are they merely a nuisance for rafters (I spent most of my trip in a wetsuit with numb fingers and toes). The cold water has driven out native fish species and completely changed the ecology of the river.
(The San Juan River cuts canyons across the four corners region on its way to join the Colorado River. Satellite image courtesy of GeoEye)
And ecological impacts are just the beginning. Water mismanagement will hurt American cities and farmers in the future. Right now, it already hurts Mexican farmers who absorb the burden of the fluctuating (and generally declining) flows. For more on the water management issue, check out the above links, and this aerial photograph of the Mexico/US border around the Colorado.
Learn about the Colorado and other at-risk rivers. Visit them, digitally or in person. Enjoy them while they still exist. Fight for them any way you can, for example, by supporting Save the Colorado. At the very least, calculate your water footprint, find ways to reduce your freshwater consumption–not just the water you can see (like taking 30 minute showers), but the products you consume that require massive amounts of water to produce like oil, meat, and plastic. Lastly, you can find previous My Wonderful World posts on water by hitting “freshwater” in the tag cloud on the left.
-Cedar, for My Wonderful World