With powerful visual storytelling, Living River illustrates how we can create a resilient watershed if we change our relationship with water. Exploring the endangered Colorado River from source to sea, award-winning photographer Dave Showalter provides a deeper understanding of how countless creatures, including 40 million humans, depend upon its water and how the futures of all are inextricably linked to the health of the river.
There’s a place I like to go not far up the Colorado River trail in Rocky Mountain National Park where the great river, maybe ten feet across, meanders through a subalpine meadow dotted with spruce and pine, the pointed peaks of the Never Summer Range poking into the sky. Here in the headwaters, the river gurgles softly most of the year, except during spring runoff, when it’s a different river in a big rush to leave the mountains. I think about the river’s journey, visualizing the contours of land and river course downstream, not so much the countless dams stair-stepping from every high place, impoundments powering the lives of 40 million people, and canals stretching hundreds of miles, the waters of the massive storage system steadily dropping. Instead, I imagine six million years of continuous flow (until the 1960s) to the Colorado River Delta in the Gulf of California, a 1,450-mile river journey where everything, including us, is shaped by water. This meadow is a place to daydream, to whisper to the cow moose munching willow, to have a chat with chattering magpies, to be untroubled by declining snowpack and water shortages.
As much as anything, I come here for solitude while admiring one of the awe-inspiring rivers of the world. With eyes shut, just listening, feeling, the scent of pine on a breeze, I’m transported to deep canyons where light barely pierces a fissure in stone, to the glassy river tongue entering roiling rapids like a watery mirror, to a cacophony of spring songbirds under a cool cottonwood canopy, to the miracle of water flowing over and through red desert stone. I mostly feel humility in these headwaters. This mighty river, humble yet determined, will go on to absorb tributary rivers—the Fraser, Eagle, Green, Gunnison, Dolores, Dirty Devil, Escalante, San Juan, Paria, Little Colorado, Gila—as she slices the Colorado Plateau, carves the Grand Canyon, carries life and hope in her flow, and feeds the nation from borderland industrial farms.
The Colorado and her tributaries sustain the miracle of migrating birds, many covering thousands of miles along the Central and Pacific Flyways. Tens of millions of birds migrate north in spring, billions of wing beats propelling avian rivers along the course of the Colorado. Some 18 million birds migrate through the Colorado River Delta in Mexico and millions more up the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona. Tens of thousands of sandhill cranes wintering in the borderlands touch our lives in communities and rest stops on their long journey north to the Yampa and upper Green Rivers. Trumpeter swans, North America’s largest waterfowl species, have flown from Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Wyoming to the Grand Canyon and back, connecting most of the Colorado’s watershed. When we see yellow warblers and broad-tailed hummingbirds in willow along headwaters streams, these diminutive birds have flown thousands of miles from Central and South America. We mark time by the arrival of these harbingers of spring, who will nest and raise their broods to make the long return to winter range in autumn, all of their movements driven by the need to perpetuate the species and the promise of good riparian habitat replete with cottonwood and willow.
Our wild brothers and sisters of the Colorado River watershed, bound to river flow and woody vegetation along the Colorado’s main stem and far-reaching tributary arteries, have been aided by restoration and conservation stewards—river keepers—who are improving and creating habitat throughout the watershed. Replanting willow and cottonwood helps to restore ecosystem and riverine health and nurtures wildlife richness. Groundwater recharge beneath the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona gives life to more than 400 wildlife species. Dredged, defined channels and replanted willow keep Colorado’s Fraser River cool for trout and provide woody structure for breeding songbirds here in the headwaters. With determination, ingenuity, and a stewardship ethos, experts and regular folks alike throughout the watershed are taking action to meet wildlife habitat needs while enhancing ecological health. Our collective engagement, riverine restoration projects, our stories and art and lifeways that shift our relationships to water in the West, the decision making that values the living river—all these endeavors are the collective voice for the mighty Colorado and the wild idea that healthy rivers benefit wildlife and people.
The Colorado River stretches from these headwaters in the Never Summer Range above the Kawuneeche Valley in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park to the Colorado River Delta on the Gulf of California in Mexico. Apart from a few outlier years since the 1960s, the river dries up in desert sand just over the Mexican border, but now a binational Raise the River alliance restoration project is directing seasonal flow through a series of ditches in the Colorado floodplain to restore critical habitat and hope in the Delta.
If you include the river miles of the Colorado’s major tributaries, all of those squiggly blue lines on maps quickly add up to thousands of river miles. Each of those tributary rivers is spectacular. Maps showing all of the rivers, streams, and creeks—the circulatory system of the watershed—look very much like the veins and arteries of the human heart, or the human nervous system, or mycelium crawling across the forest floor, of life interconnected in river current. Flowing from all the high points that define its watershed basin, the Colorado drains 249,000 square miles and makes life possible from Denver to Los Angeles, from Salt Lake City to Yuma and to Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico.
Still, there’s no sugarcoating the peril of our water truth in the American West. Anyone reading these words has probably seen accounts of a dying Colorado River, the story of her decline told in images of cracked mud and white mineral bathtub rings marking historical high points around reservoirs. We collectively gasp while viewing small pools in Lake Powell and Lake Mead where boat ramps sink into desert sand, bemoaning dwindling snowpack and diminishing flows as gauges measure the declining amount of water flowing throughout the Colorado River Basin. Since 2000, extreme climate change-driven “mega-drought” in the Interior West and Southwest has inflamed the gap between water allocation and actual “wet water” in the Colorado River system. The first-ever Declaration of Shortage on the Colorado River system, in 2021, followed by a tier-two shortage in August 2022, set off more alarms and triggered water allocation cuts in the Southwest, forecasting further and deeper cuts throughout the watershed. Spring through fall has become explosive wildfire season—for example, the autumn 2020 Troublesome Creek fire in the Colorado’s headwaters region—when desiccated land is consumed by flames driven by hurricane-force winds, putting everyone on high alert. New research by scientists at University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia University reported that the ongoing drought in the Colorado River Basin is the worst in 1,200 years, with 42 percent of the severity driven by human-caused climate change.
The Colorado River is in crisis, yet she is still a flowing, living river. Eighty percent of her water is allocated to agriculture, most of which is used by the big borderland industrial agricultural producers, though agriculture is not monolithic. Imperial Valley, California, farming operations produce much of the nation’s winter fruits and vegetables, and lettuce farms in Yuma, Arizona (which hold the highest-priority water rights in Arizona)—at the confluence of the Gila and the Colorado—grow 90 percent of the winter greens consumed in North America: when we eat a salad in winter, we are eating the Colorado River. These big borderland agricultural producers hold the most senior water rights in the watershed. Established by prior appropriation, generally water rights are considered “first in time, first in rights”: in times of water shortage, senior water rights are fulfilled first, before later-appropriated “junior” water rights holders can begin to use water tied to their rights.
“A river in crisis” makes for provocative headlines, yet all of this dire situation—which impacts 40 million souls, resident and migrating birds, and all flora and fauna in the West—is a human construct and a decades-long failure to act. Journalists say, “The Colorado River is dying,” but no, the river is not dying. The hard truth is that we waited too long to address the problem of systemic water shortage and are no longer able to deliver our water commitments to people, to agriculture, to fuel all of our wildest human ambitions everywhere in the arid American West. This oversimplified narrative of scarcity and competition for water also means that the river itself needs our collective voices for improving the watershed’s resilience in the face of climate change, while sustaining an ever-expanding human population and a healthy, functioning river system. The Colorado River and her tributaries need more river keepers, folks with knowledge of and empathy for the river who are building a watershed community.
Conservation photographer and author Dave Showalter is focused on the American West. Dave works throughout the ecosystems of the Intermountain West and has published two books prior to Living River: The Promise of the Mighty Colorado, Sage Spirit: The American West at a Crossroads (Braided River) and Prairie Thunder: The Nature of Colorado’s Great Plains(Skyline Press). Dave is a senior fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers, and a long-time contributor and partner of Platte Basin Timelapse. Dave works in partnership with numerous conservation groups, including Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited Headwaters chapter on the Living River project. With Living River and conservation storytelling, Dave seeks to take readers on a journey to see themselves as part of nature and the community of living things, engendering empathy, caring, and love of the natural world—the genesis of meaningful conservation. Dave is based in Arvada, Colorado. Learn more at www.livingrivercolorado.org.
Header photo—a clearing storm reveals the Never Summer Range headwaters of the Colorado River, with spring runoff spilling into the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado—by Dave Showalter. Photo of Dave Showalter by Marla Ofstad.