Colorado College 2012 State of the Rockies Project: Zak Podmore — ‘Where’s the river?’

zakpodmorewillstauffernorrisstateoftherockies2012

Here’s an article by Zak Podmore about the State of the Rockies Source to Sea adventure where he and Will Stauffer-Norris paddled from the headwaters of the Green River to the Colorado River Delta. Click on the thumbnail graphic to the right for short bios of both paddlers. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Over the past 108 days, we’ve paddled more than 1,600 miles down the Colorado River and its longest tributary, the Green River. Our journey is part of Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project, an outreach research effort which this year focuses on environmental issues surrounding the Colorado River Basin…

From the time we launched until we crossed into Mexico in mid-January, asking where the river was would have been absurd. We always knew where the river was. That changed, however, when Stauffer-Norris and I, recent Colorado College graduates and field researchers for the project, reached the Mexican border. In southern Arizona, we traded our kayaks for five-pound, inflatable rafts, and paddled up to the Morales Dam, the 11th and final dam we would have to portage on the trip. There, we found a shocking sight.

On one side of the dam was the Colorado River. On the other was a trickle of water — much too shallow to float — which disappeared into the sand within a couple of miles. The mighty river that had carried us across six states and into another country had been entirely diverted out of its former riverbed 90 miles from the sea. For the next five days, we paddled through irrigation canals and pools of agricultural runoff so polluted we took pains to avoid touching it.

When the canals dried up, we attempted to follow the historical course of the river that hasn’t reached the sea since the 1998. We spent several days fighting our way through miles of invasive tamarisk and mud-cracked desert before finally reaching salt water. En route, we learned that our attempts to find the “original riverbed” were driven by a cartographer’s dream. The Colorado River once nourished more than 3,000 square miles of desert land from the Gulf of California in Mexico to the Imperial Valley in United States. The delta had no stable, narrow watercourse that could be easily converted to a blue line on a map. Instead, the river spread out into vast network of lagoons, wetlands and riparian areas, making the delta one of the most biologically diverse areas in the region.

But today, most of the delta is farmland, and the 320 remaining bird species must rely on pockets of agricultural discharge, too salty for continued use in agriculture. Before the river even reaches the Morales Dam near Yuma, Arizona, 90 percent of the water already has been diverted to the taps of cities as distant as Denver and San Diego, or converted into helping grow our wintertime supply of lettuce, carrots and other produce. At the border, the remaining water is funneled into a canal system and taken to the cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, in addition to hundreds of square miles of farms.

More Colorado River basin coverage here.

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