Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — In a verdant valley at 10,000 feet elevation in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River starts its 1,450 mile journey toward the sea.
On a July morning, dewdrops sparkle on blades of grass as the sun rises over the surrounding mountains. The mighty river is just a trickle in this idyllic meadow, slowly percolating to its lowest point. If you take a narrow view, all is pristine and untouched. But if you zoom out, the West's most crucial waterway has been already been altered even before its water has a chance to form a minor stream.
The Grand Ditch, dug largely by hand from 1890 to 1936, siphons water from 11 tributary streams in the Never Summer Mountains that would normally flow into the Colorado and instead dumps the water over the Continental Divide to serve the thirsty eastern plains of the state the river is named for. The water in the ditch flows swiftly and silently to the northeast, separated from the headwater of the Colorado by an earthen berm, never to meet.
This is just the first of hundreds of diversions and dams that make the Colorado River one of the most plumbed waterways on the planet. Its most well-known — Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam — are cogs in a complicated machine that delivers water to 40 million people and a multibillion-dollar agricultural industry in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.
But up here in Rocky Mountain National Park, a young deer with velvet antlers plods along beside purple and white columbine flowers and couldn't be more indifferent to the river's grand destiny.
Early morning light splashed dramatically across the folds and creases of red sandstone —canyons and ripples disappearing into shadow. Viewed from above, the river cut arcs through the jumbled layers of terrain, reflecting blue sky and red rock but tinged with the color of chocolate milk that is the true color of this sediment-rich water.
The Cessna 210 had taken us airborne just after 6 a.m. in late July. It would hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit on the tarmac at Canyonlands Regional Airport, just north of Moab, later that day. The early call time delivered better flying conditions and better light for photos.
Bruce Gordon was at the controls. The organization he founded, EcoFlight, uses small aircraft to educate and advocate for environmental issues, often ferrying journalists and policymakers so they can see the big picture. He's been flying for 30 years and has made hundreds of flights over the Colorado River.
"It's very dramatic," Gordon said of the changes he's seen in the last few years of flying over the river.
We watched out the window as the Colorado flowed through areas that used to be beneath Lake Powell. The Hite Marine boat ramp was visibly stranded — a patch of concrete far from the water's edge.
A few minutes later, we saw the Colorado's new river delta — where the river is carving channels through sediment deposited at the upper reaches of the reservoir.
"You look down at some of these narrow canyons that were always filled with water for miles and miles and now they're a lot shorter. ... Things have really accelerated."
To get the clearest photos, Bruce needed to shed some speed, so we were traveling slow enough to open the plane's window. When I called out over the headsets, he would pitch the plane up into the sky, reducing its airspeed and fling the window open. Warm, dry air would burst into the cabin and I'd hit the shutter button on my camera.
"Having this job really gives you the bigger perspective about communities that don't have water," Gordon said. "Communities that are at risk of fire all the time. Communities that their fishing is going away, their rafting is going away. Everything is affected, it's not just Lake Powell."
"Look at all these primroses popping up!" hollers Eric Balken, executive director of Glen Canyon Institute. We are a couple of miles up Davis Gulch, a side canyon off the Escalante River. Or, more accurately, we are a couple of miles from where we could park our powerboat, as this canyon is one of approximately 125 that were flooded when the waters of Lake Powell began to rise behind Glen Canyon Dam.
Balken points out the Goodding's willows, the different grasses, the cottonwood seedlings taking root. A frog kicks through shallow water to evade the human visitors.
"This is miraculous. This is amazing," Balken says. "The scale of change happening here is so hard to wrap your head around."
Balken has been bringing guests into these canyons for 14 years. Each time he goes the landscape is changed. Even on trips separated by only six months, the reservoir's edge may be a mile or more farther down canyon — that's how fast Powell's waters are declining at times.
In the part of a canyon still flooded by Lake Powell, the world is silent and still. The vertical canyon walls hit glassy, dark water and are reflected back toward the sky. Maybe a fish jumps. A crow calls. But mostly it is a hard intersection of rock and water.
As that water recedes and the canyon floor breathes air, it begins to revert back to something closer to its natural state. Mud flats are incised by the flowing creek. Grasses begin to sprout. Insects return, filling the air with a gentle and unceasing hum. Fremont cottonwoods sprout and grow, reaching up toward the canyon rim.
"Ultimately when you get to areas that have been out of the water for 20 years, you see full-on forests," Balken said. "To me that's the most hopeful thing, when you see the 30-, 40-, 50-foot willow and cottonwood trees that are like little forests in there. To me those look, sound and smell like healthy desert riparian ecosystems."
Balken calls Glen Canyon the heart of the Colorado River. He points out that it's bounded by Canyonlands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument.
"All of the most prized, protect land of the Colorado plateau, Glen Canyon is the heart of all of that."
As if viewed through some perverse mirror, the Colorado River at its end bears some similarity to the river at its headwater. It's a general rule of thumb that a river grows bigger as it flows downhill, picking up volume with every tributary.
But when the Colorado River reaches its terminus at the Gulf of California, it is scarcely bigger than the river at its start. However, instead of flowing through the lush high Rockies, the river fades away into a flat, seemingly dead expanse of dust.
Before the river was wrung dry to serve agriculture and growing cities, the delta was a verdant paradise inhabited by jaguars, beavers, deer and coyotes. Now, the river flows through a narrow channel surrounded by mud flats, meeting the sea only when the highest tide of the month pushes the saltwater high enough to flood the estuary and kiss the end of the river.
Thanks to a binational agreement between the U.S. and Mexico , environmental groups trying to reverse this damage have a powerful tool at their disposal — water. A handful of miles upstream from the terminus, water gushes back out of the federal irrigation canals and into the river channel.
In restoration areas lining the river, thick stands of cottonwood trees shed their namesake seeds over the forest floor like feathers spilled from a down pillow. Beavers have come back, doing what beavers do best, resulting in lush ponds full of fish.
Tomás Enrique Rivas Salcedo, a restoration specialist for the Sonoran Institute, stands on a dock clutching his binoculars in the hopes of seeing one of the elusive rodents. In this final stretch of the Colorado, the extra water being dumped into the system has brought bountiful returns.
"Nature is working," Salcedo says.