Sometime during the evening of June 9th, 2021, the surface elevation of Lake Mead dropped below 1071.7 feet above mean sea level. This marked the lowest level of the nation’s largest reservoir since it first began to impound water behind Hoover Dam in the 1930s. Throughout the summer, it dropped another five feet, during a period of the year in which it normally accumulates more water.
Two hundred miles up the Colorado River, Lake Powell is in a similar state. As of Fall, 2021, it had received only 38% of its typical inflow and was also at a record low elevation. Over the past century, and especially during the last two decades, rampant development of the desert southwest and Rocky Mountains has dramatically increased demand for Colorado River water, while a twenty-year mega-drought has simultaneously reduced the amount of inflow.
The Colorado River is in trouble. For hundreds of years, the river has been the lifeblood of the American Southwest, a region that is largely open desert, as well as dry plains, and mountainous forests. The river’s basin drains about 11% of the present-day United States, and at the same time delivers water to about 40 million people living (mostly) in the same area. But increased demands on the river, coupled with a twenty-year “megadrought” induced by global warming, have led to a looming environmental crisis as the entire annual flow of the Colorado River Basin is now over-allocated, and the river is literally running dry before it reaches the sea.
These images are part of a long-term project documenting the Colorado River’s use for agriculture, industry, recreation, and municipal consumption. Visually mapping the diminishment of the Colorado is a project I hope will serve two purposes. First, I hope to engender smart decisions about water use in the near future. But I also see this project as a decidedly aesthetic record, for posterity, of how this natural resource was managed and mis-managed in my lifetime. Global warming is changing lands we take for granted right before our eyes, and the better we understand these shifts and our role in them, the better equipped we will be to reckon with them.
Aerial photography for this project has been generously supported by LightHawk.