Kayaker floats entire Colorado River watershed
Four lost toenails, two lost fingernails, one broken rib, and near-crippling forearm tendonitis didn’t stop Bryan Brown from completing the first-ever solo, continuous, and unsupported descent of the entire primary Colorado River watershed in American history.
Brown, a 57-year-old resident of Beverly Hills, completed the nearly 2,400 mile float in 100 days using a kayak that measured 10 feet in length and weighed 62 pounds, after factoring in his gear.
The trip, which Brown started in June of 2013, was completed as a tribute to Brown’s younger brother, Bruce, who died in 2012 following a two-year battle with muscular dystrophy.
The first leg of the journey took Brown from Green River Lakes, Wyo., through the Grand Canyon to the U.S. and Mexico border near Yuma, Ariz. The second leg of the trip started in Rocky Mountain National Park and continued to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers southwest of Moab, Utah.
Throughout the trip, Brown witnessed firsthand the current state of the Colorado River, the animals and humans who utilize the river for survival, and the rules, regulations, and bureaucracy that govern the river.
The state of the Colorado river
The Colorado River and its tributaries provides water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supplies water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized native American tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, and 11 national parks, according to a study completed by the Bureau of Reclamation titled “Colorado River Basin water supply and demand study.”
While the Colorado River and its tributaries is the most important water resource in the southwest United States, it is being over-allocated and concerns surrounding the future of the river are uncertain.
“Looking ahead, concerns regarding the reliability of the Colorado River system to meet future Basin resource needs are even more apparent, given the likelihood of increasing demand for water throughout the Basin coupled with projections of reduced supply due to climate change,” the study states.
Brown witnessed some of the shortages first hand while completing his float trip, the most apparent being the stretch of river that is completely dry near Yuma, Ariz., where the Colorado River crosses into Mexico, or at least where the river used to cross into Mexico.
Other places on the river were so shallow, Brown was forced to drag his boat through the mud in order to get to a place where he could begin to float again.
“There are clearly areas where there are too many straws in the river,” Brown said. “If people don’t cut back there is a potential for serious ecological damage.”
If the river does experience the rise in demand and drop in supply that is predicted for the future, not only would the ecology of the river be damaged but the economies that the river supports could also see a negative impact.
Without water from the Colorado River, residents of the southwest could be left without access to water or have extreme limitations on usage imposed, farmers wouldn’t be able to irrigate their crops, raft guides would be left without a job, and the small towns that cater to the river runners could all but disappear.
“But because of the complex historic claims on the river, it will be very difficult to figure out who has to stop sucking on the straws,” Brown said.
With the stark future of the river set aside, Brown said that he witnessed some reassuring signs the ecology of the river is making a comeback.
Brown found that the wildlife that call the Colorado River Basin home are beginning to show signs of strengthening with help from programs and protections put in place by the various agencies who act as custodians for the river, something he considers to be a cause for optimism.
Brown said he witnessed and documented numerous species of birds whose numbers seem to be bouncing back after federal agencies have completed work to eradicate tamarisks.
He also commented that it appeared framers and ranchers have been working to create a hospitable habitat for other animals such as deer and elk.
“This waterway is wild, fairly pristine, has recovering wildlife, is stunningly beautiful throughout, and has surprisingly little trash,” Brown said.
“I would recommend, whether it is a day or a month, for people to get acquainted with this river,” Brown said. “It is a national treasure that we are lucky to have.”
Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334
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