Perhaps the most striking thing about talking to Jon Waterman after his epic journey down the length of the storied Colorado River is that he remains optimistic that this great American river can, even now, be restored to flow once again from the Rockies of Colorado to the Pacific Ocean.
Waterman traveled the river from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, through the Great Basin desert country of Utah, into the Grand Canyon, and eventually down along the border between Arizona and California to where the mighty river evaporates into the Mexican desert far from the ocean. Along the way he chronicles the insults the Colorado suffers as cities in the arid region of its route siphon water for their thirsty residents, and farmers take even more to pursue industrial strength agriculture.
“Believe me,” Waterman told GreatOutdoors.com, “I’m not being a pollyanna about this. But the river is so iconic, and so loved, that people can be made to see the handwriting on the wall, to do what’s necessary to restore the Colorado. But we have to face facts, call a spade a spade, to acknowledge to shape the river is in now, and then set about making the decisions to put things right.”
In what is arguably Waterman’s best book to date, Running Dry combines the adventure story of traveling down the might river with exhaustive, scholarly research on what is happening along the way. But he also manages to bring an intensely personal point of view to his journey of discovery on the Colorado, by weaving elements of his family, from his kids to the death of his mother, into this important work.
“Each time you go on an important trip you take your baggage with you,” Waterman explained. “Everyone has those issues and their life’s past to cope with, and I wanted to bring some emotional resonance to my project. It seemed quite organic to equate the death of my mother to the potential loss of the river. It reminded me too that life is short. In fact, one of the reason I take such pleasure in nature is I find in it great humility. But to see eternity squelched is pretty devastating. Those were the things weighing on my mind during this project.”
On the adventure side of the book, we go along with Waterman through ugly encounters with well-heeled fly fisherman who are reluctant to share the upper reaches of the river. We ride with the author down the rapids of the Grand Canyon to get a glimpse of the beauty of the mammoth defile and its tributaries. For lovers of outdoor adventure, Running Dry is a smorgasbord of interesting experience in a remarkably wild landscape.
But Waterman also clearly views the Grand Canyon as the key to the river, and we learn that the damns have made the water 20 degrees colder than it had been for eons, changing an ecology of fish and plantlife that has evolved over five million years. That has been exacerbated by stopping the flow of sediment, a situation not relieved by the infrequent, well publicized spills.
“Those are just media events,” Waterman said, “one flood every half dozen years will not do the job. Still, it’s startling the number of people who have gone down the Grand Canyon and who remain unaware of the river's problems. They go down the river and think the Colorado is intact, but it’s not. I hope this book changes that.”
The real tragedy for Waterman is that the river is so altered and abused and siphoned off that it no longer flows into the Pacific, a fact that he believes is not widely appreciated. As he approached the end of his journey, he found the river just disappears into the deserts south of the US border.
“I’ve met with a lot of Mexican naturalists who believe you can restore the delta despite the situation now,” he said. “I firmly believe that. I think there is hope. Hope lays not only in conservation, in fact by far the most important element is agriculture. That takes 78 per cent of the river, and if you’re going to do reform, you have to start there. That’s where all the water goes, cities are now paying farmers not to farm so they can get their water. For any reform in irrigation, the initial investments are steep, but those can be recouped in a decade by doing drip irrigation,. This whole flood irrigation has to stop, this use it or loose mentality has to stop.”
Waterman is a realist, and he knows his efforts to spread the word about the state of the Colorado will not be easy.
“Obviously there are a lot of politics, water decisions, and allocations are made behind closed door, and there is next to no federal oversight. But for me, there was a need for someone to do a first person account that looked at these issues. I wanted to bring the issues together with a strong personal connection. It was an ambitious undertaking and only time will tell if I succeeded. “