Carbondale activist warns of Colorado River ‘Running Dry’
October 13, 2010
CARBONDALE – Jonathan Waterman knew as a conservationist that the Colorado River was in peril of being over-allocated to thirsty cities, ranches and industries when he set out to write a book about the West’s iconic waterway a couple of years ago.
But instead of sitting in the comfort of his Missouri Heights home to conduct his research, he set out to see every stretch of the stressed river himself. The epic journey started in June 2008 at the headwaters near Rocky Mountain National Park as the relatively heavy snows of the prior winter succumbed to early summer and created a torrent.
It ended nearly 1,450 miles downstream when the once-mighty river was so low that Waterman and a companion, photographer Pete McBride of Basalt, were forced to walk more than paddle in polluted gunk that caused an infection in Waterman’s feet.
The disheartening conclusion of his amazing journey was that the Colorado River disappears into the muck of a delta before reaching its historic destination at the Sea of Cortez. The river has been divvied up by so many competing interests that it doesn’t seem possible the streamflow was, more than a century ago, high enough to allow steamboats to crawl up the waterway.
Despite the sour note at river’s end, what Waterman learns and witnesses in between the headwaters and delta makes his book, “Running Dry,” a fascinating read. The writer of 10 prior books, he weaves first-person accounts of action and adventure with a surge of facts on the grim status of the river and its ecosystem.
Waterman, 54, describes kayaking down dangerous stretches of a river swollen by snowmelt in June, and of playing nice with drunks he encounters at Lake Powell. He’s much more self-deprecating than macho about his paddling adventures and misadventures.
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Descriptions of what he witnessed along the river make for a great segue in presenting facts on everything from the geology that formed the river to the ill-advised compact that divided water use among seven Western states to the ecological damage wrought by dams and resulting salinity of the river.
Waterman wants his readers to know about the “coming train wreck” the Colorado River faces unless there are thorough, open discussions about how to keep the natural system alive. The river and its tributaries already supply water for 30 million people and the population is expected to surge in the southwestern states relying on it. The most intense use is for irrigating farms and ranchlands.
Meanwhile, decades-old contracts for its use were based on artificially high estimates of the annual amount of water available. Climate change has created a drought that persists in much of the massive river basin.
While Waterman sounds the alarm in “Running Dry,” he also shows readers why the natural system is worth saving – like the remaining habitat for big horn sheep, which are making a comeback along the river corridor, and other wildlife.
“I’m not a Pollyanna. [But] I found continual reasons for hope,” Waterman said, referring to his journey. “It’s when you dig under the skin a bit you find the challenges. It’s still worth trying to save.”
The book, published by National Geographic, came out in May. Waterman has stayed busy since on the lecture and presentation circuit. He will be featured in events in Carbondale and Aspen in coming days, and will participate on an expert panel discussing the looming western water crisis.
A lecture and photo presentation on the river journey will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Roaring Fork High School auditorium in Carbondale. It is free and open to the public. Copies of the book will be available for sale and Waterman will sign them. The book is also being read in Carbondale’s “One Book, One Town,” program where residents of all ages concentrate on one publication.
He will give another presentation of “Running Dry” at the Pitkin County Library conference room in Aspen on at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 18. A book signing will be part of the event.
Sandwiched between the presentations will be a panel discussion of “The Western Water Crisis” from 7:30-9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, at the Thunder River Theatre Co.’s Black Box Theatre in Carbondale. The water experts will discuss water problems and three leading solutions in an event moderated by the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
In addition, a photo exhibit of the Colorado River featuring images by Waterman and McBride opens Oct. 22 at the Wyly Community Art Center gallery in Basalt.
Waterman views his presentations as a critical part of his environmental activism.
“If you really want to affect change as a writer, you have to do more than write a book,” he said.