One hundred and fifty years ago, a group of explorers led by Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell set out to document the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It was the first trip of its kind. To commemorate the journey, a group of scientists, artists and graduate students from the University of Wyoming called the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition has been retracing his steps this summer.
Minckley’s group launched in late May in the same spot and on the same day John Wesley Powell and his crew of nine men launched in 1869. Along the way, more than 60 people — including fellow scientists, environmentalists, tribal leaders and water managers — joined Minckley’s crew.
“We’ve been rowing and most recently motoring down the same route he took looking at the conditions of the river, talking to people about the future of the West, water supplies, natural resources,” Minckley said, in between the sounds of passing motorboats on Lake Powell. “(We’re) trying to examine the system in a similar way that John Wesley Powell did through a systematic look at how it’s being used.”
In the time since Powell’s journey, vast infrastructure projects fundamentally changed how the Green and Colorado Rivers function, and what they look like. Unlike Powell, Minckley’s group had to portage around large dams, like Flaming Gorge in Utah and Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona. Part of Powell’s legacy, he says, is that he warned lawmakers in Washington D.C. not to overuse the river, and to plan for scarcity.
But, Minckley says, even as Powell remains as an oracle-like figure in the West’s mythology, much of what’s been built in the basin is well within his vision for the region…
On John Wesley Powell
“Powell was the first European to row down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Grand Canyon. He coined the term The Great Unknown as parts of that system were known from mountain man days, but there were parts that had never been seen by European eyes. He connected the upper river to what was known down in the area that is now Lake Mead… He was a Civil War hero who lost his arm in battle and he went on to become one of the United States’ great explorer heroes. One of the last great explorations of the lower 48 states was Powell’s trip down the Green and Colorado rivers. He was instrumental in developing the West and opening up the West to settlement and largely also envisioning some of the infrastructure we depend on for our water supplies and power supplies.”
Explorer John Wesley Powell and Paiute Chief Tau-Gu looking over the Virgin River in 1873. Photo credit: NPS
A stopover during Powell’s second expedition down the Colorado River. Note Powell’s chair at top center boat. Image: USGS
The camp and cooking setup for the second expedition (pictured) was likely very similar to the first expedition and consisted of a few pots and pans to cook over a fire. May 4, 1871. (Credit: E.O. Beaman. Public domain.)
Austin Alvarado cracks eggs into a sizzling pan for breakfast sandwiches. (Public domain.)
Powell 150 Expedition – sandwich Lunch was usually a sandwich packed in the morning, but with great scenery. Photo credit: USGS
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Green River Basin
Lower Green River Lake
Will Stauffer-Norris and Zak Podmor at the headwaters of the Green River October 2011.
Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Split Mountain Gorge Green River June 2015 via Ana Ruiz
A small beach on the Green River in Whirlpool Canyon on a rainy day in April, 2018.
The Green River below Split Mountain in April 2018. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The Green River, above Cataract Canyon, during a downpour. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
A sprinkler delivering water from the Green River to a field in Utah. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Shadows taking over a beach along the Green River in Utah. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Clarity on a bend along the Green River: Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A view from Fort Bottom, on the Green River in Utah. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Near the bottom of the Green River, just above its confluence with the Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Waterfalls on the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The bottom of a pour over on the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The blues. On the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Morning on the upper Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
In Deso-Gray, on the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Reflecting, in a side canyon off of the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A big beach on the lower Green River in late September is indicative of the low flows in 2018, which have caused water levels in Lake Powell to continue to drop. Plans to bolster flows in the reservoir by sending water down the Green and Colorado rivers is raising hard questions for Western Slope irrigators.
Clay flakes in a side canyon of the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, in September 2018. Most of the water that flows into Lake Powell each year flows past this remote spot in Canyonlands National Park.
Looking upriver at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in late September, one of the driest years on record for the Colorado River system. Water managers in both the upper and lower basins are working to get more water to this point in order to bolster the low level of Lake Powell, which is not far downstream.
Recreation, in progress, on the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A big beach on the banks of the Green River in September 2018, one of the lowest months on record for inflow into Lake Powell. Runoff is 2019 is expected to be better than 2018, but still below average due to dry soil conditions in the area drained by the Green and Colorado river systems. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Pride of Tex’s fleet, on the Green River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Sunlight, over sandbars, on the Green River September 2018. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A September morning along the Green River this year was scenic, but the river was low, and has been for several Septembers in a row. Water managers in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado and working to put more water into both the Green and Colorado rivers in an effort to bolster water levels in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith
No photos were taken during John Wesley Powell’s pioneering 1869 expedition of the Colorado River. This photo, taken along the Green River in northern Colorado, dates from Powell’s 1871 expedition, which retraced the 1869 journey. Credit: National Park Service
Looking down on camp at Big Pine, Red Canyon. The photo shows the SCREE Powell 150 expdition camp at Big Pine Campground in Red Canyon of the Green River, Utah. The large green tarp was set up to keep the kitchen area and campers dry. Two very large ponderosa pines are in the center of camp, and surely were witness to the 1869 Powell expedition. Photo credit SCREE via the USGS.
Yampa and Green rivers confluence. Photo credit: Ken Neubecker/American Rivers
The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.”
The confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers in 2016. How much water reaches this point, bound for Lake Powell, has implications across the west and Colorado, and an ongoing water study might suggest how to manage water in a severe drought. Photo credit Brent Gardner-Smith.
At the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A fleet of rafts makes its way down the Green River toward its confluence with the Yampa River. Future potential releases of water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir to boost levels in Lake Powell shape the flows on the Green River, although it’s not clear how the releases may change flow levels. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smity