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 over the past century, and especially during the last two decades, rampant development of the Southwest and Rocky Mountains has dramatically increased demand for Colorado River water while a historic mega-drought, driven by global warming, has led to a looming environmental crisis. The entire annual flow of the Colorado River is over-allocated, and the river is literally running dry before it reaches the sea.
The contemporary Colorado River is actually not a single entity at all, but rather an infinitely complex system of tributaries, dammed reservoirs, infrastructural incursions, and siphons that disperse the water everywhere but its natural path. It is a climatic node, whose form depends upon snowfall in distant mountains, evaporation as it flows through the desert, and groundwater fluctuations in its surrounding terrain. The river is a social, economic, political, and spiritual totem for tens of millions of people who depend upon it, and its diminishment threatens to unravel their communities if it cannot be mitigated. Human variables affect every drop that flows – or doesn’t flow – through its channels, so millions of people will have to make difficult decisions very quickly in order to save the river as we know it.
This project is an attempt to visually map these circumstances at this critical moment in time. I hope these photographs help to motivate 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.