It took almost 29 years but the other day I finally set my eyes on the mighty Colorado River. My first experience with this river took place three years ago in Los Angeles, California. I was visiting long lost relatives when I was overcome by thirst. I turned to the kitchen, walked towards the faucet and turned on the tap to pour myself a glass of water, water that had come from the Colorado River.
Fast forward years later and it was on my recent trip to the southwest that I finally set my eyes on what my thirst had already come to know. I was driving from Phoenix to Las Vegas on Highway 93 when I drove over the Pat Tillman memorial bridge and crossed the Colorado River just west of the Hoover Dam. If there is a place where the power of water and the infinity of time can be best appreciated, it is here. And if there is a place where humanities thirst for water and the finite limits that a river can provide, it is here too.
For me, seeing one of the world’s greatest rivers separated by 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete and rebar is like being an animal lover and seeing a tiger locked in a small cage with a chain around its neck. Perhaps I am being a bit dramatic but you get my point – I am not a fan of dams. Don’t get me wrong, I do not blame the American people for building the Hoover Dam, as it was the right decision at the time. Back then America was gripped in the Great Depression and this project provided thousands of jobs and gave the southwest cheap energy with an ample supply of water, helping California become the economic engine of America. However, in more recent times, this dam has created a false sense of water security for the people of the southwest and has been the major contributing factor towards urban sprawl throughout this region, not to mention the dam has degraded the Colorado River’s ecosystem and the surrounding environment. Concrete and rebar is no longer the easy answer.
While the Mississippi River has no shortage of water issues, there is no shortage of water; the same cannot be said about the Colorado River. These days, the Colorado does not even reach the Gulf of California because every drop of water in the river is appropriated for human use. More water is pumped from the Colorado River than any other river in the world, the result: The Colorado has been sucked dry and yet this river still supplies drinking water for almost 30 million people, just shy of the entire population of Canada. It also irrigates some 3.5 million acres of farmland, which has helped turn vast stretches of semi arid desert like the Imperial Valley into some of America’s most productive farmland. As a Canadian, much of the fruit that we buy through the winter months in our grocery stores has been watered by the Colorado River. Which presents an important question, if the present day Colorado River can barely meet the needs of the southwest, where will the water come from in the future?
There is no shortage of ideas as to how to deal with water scarcity in the southwest but there are two controversial plans that I believe need to be acknowledged, especially because these plans involve Canadian waters. Known as inter-basin water transfers, water from one watershed is transferred to another through the use of giant aqueducts (water pipelines). One idea is to pump water from the mountains of British Columbia and the other is to reverse the flow of the Great Lakes into the Mississippi River and then pump that water west. Either scheme would provide a continuous supply of water to the southwest, until of course, the Canadian water is depleted.
While both plans may seem outrageous right now, as the Colorado basin continues to be sucked dry, this region is going to have to receive water from somewhere to at least maintain the status-quo. Hence, the question must be asked, is Canada willing to forfeit it’s water to quench the thirst of the parched southwest?
There is good news. Through the combination of new inventions and exciting innovations, technology is making a drop of water go farther than ever before. I personally believe that if America leans towards its entrepreneurial nature, rather than its imperial might, the southwest can turn the corner down a more sustainable path. Look no farther than Las Vegas, Nevada, which has some of America’s most progressive water management policies complementing water conservation techniques like waterless urinals. The best way to save water (or energy for that matter) is to conserve it, not mega engineering projects like inter-basin water transfers.
My last impression of the Colorado River was 400 km east of the Hoover Dam at Grand Canyon National Park. Although I was in Arizona the entire area was covered in snow and the temperature was -15 below freezing. As I looked over the edge I could see the Colorado River way off in the distance, a mere shadow of it’s one mighty force, yet I was filled with a sense of satisfaction. One day, either long after we are gone or better yet, if we manage this river with the respect it deserves, the Colorado River will regain its full power and reclaim the Grand Canyon so it can continue to carve its ever lasting imprint across one of the Earth’s most spectacular places. It is just a matter of time and the Grand Canyon has no shortage of that.
I hope to return to the Colorado River one day soon, but next time the vantage point of the Grand Canyon rim will not suffice. I want to experience the Colorado head on – degraded or not. For now check out this short YouTube video about a man’s expedition on the Colorado River and see what a river looks like when it has no water.
See you on the water,