Our pilot, David Kunkel, asked me to retrieve his oxygen bottle from under my seat, and when I handed it to him he gripped the plastic breathing tube with his teeth and opened the valve. We had taken off from Boulder not long before and were flying over Rocky Mountain National Park, 30 miles to the northwest. “People don’t usually think altitude is affecting them,” he said. “But if you ask them to count backward from a hundred by sevens they have trouble.” What struck me at that moment was not how high we were but how low: As Kunkel banked steeply to the right to give us a better view of a stream at the bottom of a narrow valley, his wingtip appeared to pass just feet from the jagged declivity beneath us.
The other passenger, sitting in the copilot’s seat and leaning out the window with a big camera, was Jennifer Pitt, the director of the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River Program. Pitt is in her forties. She has long brown hair, which she had pulled back into a ponytail, and she was wearing a purple fleece. In recent years, her focus has been on the river’s other end, in Mexico, but she had agreed to show me its source. Our principal destination that day was the Colorado’s headwaters, just over the Continental Divide, roughly 50 miles south of the Wyoming state line. “The best way to see a river system is from the air,” she’d told me.
When the first Europeans to view the Grand Canyon looked down from its southern rim, in 1540, they guessed that the stream at the bottom must be about eight feet wide. They’d been fooled by the scale of the canyon, but even so, the Colorado River isn’t huge. If you were to spread a full year’s worth of its entire flow evenly over a surface the size of its drainage basin, roughly 250,000 square miles, the water would cover it to a depth of only about an inch. The Mississippi River carries the equivalent of the Colorado’s entire annual flow every couple of weeks.
Yet the Colorado is a crucial resource for a surprisingly large part of the United States. It and its tributaries flow through or alongside seven Western states—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California—before crossing into Mexico near Yuma, Arizona. It supplies water to more than 36 million people, including residents not just of Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs but also of Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles. It irrigates close to six million acres of farmland, much of which it also created through eons of silt deposition. It powers two of the country’s largest hydroelectric plants, at Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams, and is the principal water source for two enormous manmade reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, as well as many smaller ones. It supports recreational activities that are said to be worth $26 billion a year. Some of its southern reaches attract so many transient residents during the winter that you could almost believe it had overflowed its banks and left dense alluvial deposits of motorboats, jet skis, golf carts, all-terrain vehicles, RVs, and people with gray hair.
All that human utility has costs. The Colorado has helped to shape some of the most otherworldly landforms on earth—the Grand Canyon, of course, and also the Vermilion Cliffs, in northern Arizona, and the eerily striated buttes and mazelike sandstone meanders of Canyonlands National Park, in southeastern Utah—yet even within those seemingly wild landscapes, its flow is so altered and controlled that in many ways the river functions more like a 1,400-mile-long canal. The legal right to use every gallon is owned or claimed by someone—in fact, more than every gallon, since theoretical rights to the Colorado’s flow, known to water lawyers as “paper water,” greatly exceed its actual flow, known as “wet water.” That imbalance has been exacerbated by a severe drought that began just before the turn of the millennium; even as much of the Western United States emerges from it, the over-allocation problems remain.
Kunkel dipped a wing, and Pitt pointed toward the Never Summer Mountains, on our right. “There’s the Grand Ditch,” she said. I saw what looked like a road or a hiking trail cut across the face of a steeply sloping forest of snow-dusted conifers; she explained that it was an aqueduct, dating to 1890. Fourteen miles long, the Grand Ditch carries water across the Continental Divide at La Poudre Pass and empties it into a stream that flows toward the state’s eastern plains. It doesn’t tap the Colorado directly, but captures as much as 40 percent of the flow from slopes that would otherwise feed it, like a sap-gathering gash in the trunk of a rubber tree. We had already flown over several larger, more recent additions to the same water-storing-and-shifting network. “Even people who describe themselves as worried environmentalists usually have no idea where their water comes from,” Pitt says.
The Colorado suffers from the same kinds of overuse and environmental degradation that threaten another key water source in the Western United States—a vast network of saline lakes. Diversions of inflows for agriculture, industry, and human consumption have reduced the amount of water these lakes hold, which in turn has steadily increased their salinity, a problem also exacerbated by drought. Unlike most saline lakes, which formed naturally tens of thousands of years ago, the Salton Sea was created by an act of engineering imbecility. Yet it plays a unique and increasingly important role in sustaining the viability of a large number of bird species. It is one of the principal stops on the migratory route known as the Pacific Flyway, which extends from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle, and roughly 60 percent of the species known to breed in North America have been spotted there. The Salton Sea’s receding shoreline poses a direct health threat to humans, too, because as the water level falls, more of the lakebed is exposed and the harmful substances left behind by evaporation are picked up by the wind.
Water problems are straightforward in one way: Without water we die, and not centuries from now. When supplies are short, people have no choice but to find solutions, one way or another, in real time. They change behavior, cut back consumption, develop new sources, negotiate treaties, pass legislation—all right now—and we know that happens because in dry places all over the world there’s evidence of it every day. Water problems in the Western United States, when viewed from afar, can seem tantalizingly easy to solve: All we need to do is turn off the fountains at the Bellagio, stop selling hay to China, ban golf, cut down the almond trees, and kill all the lawyers. As you draw closer, though, you realize that every new solution creates additional problems. Addressing everything effectively, equitably, and permanently will force us to weigh the kinds of choices we prefer to avoid.
The ideal resolution to many Western water issues would intelligently address other issues, too, including energy and climate, and would attempt to arrive at some degree of mutual accommodation among a long list of competing and often combative interests. Pitt told me she believes accommodation is possible. “Back in 2004, Bennett W. Raley, who was Bush’s assistant secretary of the Interior, organized a river trip down the Grand Canyon,” she told me. “The people on the trip were federal brass, state water managers, urban water managers, journalists, and me.” Sitting around the campfire, she said, “I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a long river trip.’ But we ultimately started talking.”
Adapted from Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by David Owen.
How You Can Help Safeguard Western Water
Saline Lakes: A Critical Web
Data visualizations by Katie Peek
Saline lakes—the landlocked water bodies that dot the Intermountain West—are beacons for millions of birds crossing an otherwise arid landscape. As Audubon’s Water and Birds in the Arid West report shows, these lakes and their associated wetlands form an invaluable network of stopover points rich in prey—one that supports 90 percent of Eared Grebes, 90 percent of Wilson’s Phalaropes, and more than half of American Avocets.
Humans are increasingly diverting the water that replenishes saline lakes, driving their water levels down and their salinity up, which in turn alters the food web and habitat upon which birds rely. In the summers of 2014 and 2015 nearly all of the saline lakes reached record lows or dried completely, a trend that will be exacerbated by climate change in the future. Waterbirds can recover from the loss of a few sites; the failure of the whole network would be devastating—an outcome Audubon is working to avoid.
How Birds Use the Lake Network
Priority Species in the Saline Lakes
Audubon has identified nine species that are particularly dependent on the network of saline lakes and their associated wetlands. Circles show the maximum count in the past 20 years for each species at each lake. Some species—such as Marbled Godwit and White-faced Ibis—gather at a few key sites, while others—such as American Avocet and Western Sandpiper—rely on the entire network.
Colorado River: A Refuge in Flux
The riparian forest that lines the waterways of the Colorado River Basin provides critical habitat for birds, including 400 species along the lower Colorado River alone. But because the region has been radically replumbed, that habitat is changing. Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline, a report published by the National Audubon Society in July, documents what that shift means for birdlife, now and in the future.
Scores of dams and diversions have altered river flows, undermining native tree species and allowing invasive shrubs to grow in their place. At least six breeding birds, including the Bell's Vireo, Summer Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, have declined in sync. As human demand increases and the climate changes, riparian habitat—native or not—could begin to disappear altogether. By protecting the rivers’ flows, the more than 36 million people who rely on the basin for water will protect the region’s birds, too.
The Basin in a Warming World
Priority Species in the Colorado River Basin
Eight species have populations that particularly depend on native cottonwood-willow forest and marshes in the Colorado River Basin. For the report, Audubon modeled where four that breed in the basin tend to be most abundant (shown below on maps). Bell’s Vireo and Summer Tanager occur in the lower basin, while Yellow-breasted Chat and Yellow Warbler appear basinwide.
Not modeled are four other priority bird species: Sandhill Crane, a wintering resident with a small regional population that makes it especially vulnerable to habitat changes; Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, a federally endangered subspecies that relies on territories in the lower basin to breed; Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a federally threatened subspecies that usually nests in willows and forages in cottonwoods; and Yuma Ridgway's Rail, a year-round resident and federally endangered subspecies with two-thirds of its population supported by the Colorado River Delta.
With Less Water, Habitats Transform
As people have built dams and diverted water for their own uses, the peak flow of the lower Colorado—like other rivers in the basin—has plummeted. Smaller and less frequent floods have begun to transform the landscape.
Native cottonwood-willow forests provide canopy, mid-story, and shrub-level nesting sites for breeding birds and shelter for migrants. The trees need intermittent flooding to regenerate, and so as the water table (the soil depth at which the ground is saturated with water) has lowered, seedlings struggle to germinate.
Where native habitat has died off, deep rooted saltcedar, or tamarisk, often grows in its place. Though the shrubs provide much needed greenery in areas with low water levels, the birdlife they support is markedly less rich.
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