Environment: Following the Colorado, Part II

March 2013

Last month, we wrote about adventurers who kayaked the entire length of the Colorado River, from Wyoming to the Sea of Cortez and Mexico, for Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project. The team was hired a second time to pursue a more research-intensive kayaking mission that would raise awareness of the precarious state of the river. You can read about the outcomes—and learn more about the resulting videos, films, blogs, and maps—on DownTheColorado.org.

Here, we caught up with researcher and kayaker extraordinaire Zak Podmore to talk about the expeditions.

5280: Your first adventure down the Colorado River was source-to-sea, but you can’t actually reach the Sea of Cortez via kayak, right?

Zac Podmore: That is true. Right at the U.S.-Mexico border by Yuma, Arizona, the river dries up completely. Before that, 90 percent of the river has already been diverted; at the border, the last 10 percent is put in a canal, and the riverbed is dry mostly all the way down to the ocean. So we floated the canals for five days through Mexico and did some hiking to reach the ocean.

5280: Were there times when you felt like you were in over your head or in danger?

ZP: We didn’t run into too many major issues until we got to Mexico. It was a big question mark the whole trip as to what we’d run into there. You can’t really get maps of the area, so we didn’t know if we’d have to hike the entire time, or if we’d be able to use these little inflatable pack rafts we had. Every day was kind of uncertain. We had GPS on the iPhone with downloaded satellite imagery, so we could see the system of canals spread across 3,000 square miles from the Sea of Cortez up into California. It’s a huge area. We could see the route we wanted to take, but we didn’t know which canals would have water and which would be turned off that time of year. We were able to go further than we expected, probably about 50 miles or so floating through the canals, and then we had to hike for a day. We reached a little tributary from agricultural runoff and we took that down to the ocean.

5280: Where did you sleep once you were in Mexico?

ZP: We’d have to camp under bushes on somebody’s farm. We were uncomfortable with it because we’d been on public lands in the U.S. the whole rest of the trip. When we actually reached the ocean, we were like, "wow, we made it!" But we were really in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from any town, and we had a limited amount of water. That was the most stressful part of the trip: We had to get back to a town in time to resupply our water because we couldn’t take it out of the river anymore—we were on salt water.

5280: So what did you do?

ZP: We paddled 30 miles on the ocean to a road and then hitchhiked in. It wasn’t that bad because the tides were providing a lot of current. It was kind of like, "Yeah, we made it—and now we have to get out of here."

5280: How did the second trip evolve?

ZP: The State of the Rockies Project decided the Colorado River was an important enough theme to cover two years in a row. They’d never done that before. They decided to make our research more focused during the second expedition.

5280: This second journey culminated in five web video episodes, each about a different issue related to the river. Give us an example topic.

ZP: The fifth episode is about our second crossing of Lake Powell this summer, which we did in a solar-powered raft. So we went 180 miles at two miles per hour. But we made it across the whole lake without using any gas. It took us six days.

5280: What do you think is the most pressing water issue in our state?

ZP: People’s awareness of where their water is coming from. There are more than 20 diversion projects that cut across the Continental Divide and bring water from tributaries of the Colorado River to Front Range cities. It’s also the threat posed by the projected population growth in the next 50 years and the projected decline in precipitation from climate change. Those two things are going to create a lot of problems throughout the entire basin.

5280: Are we going to reach a point where we literally run out of water?

ZP: Pretty much everybody in the Southwest—something like 30 million people—rely on Colorado River water. So that question is a big concern among water managers from Colorado down to California and Mexico. If we had a serious drought, like the one we had last year, which continued for a few winters in a row, there would have to be emergency cutbacks in all cities, from Denver to Los Angeles.

5280: What was the most surprising outcome of your expeditions?

ZP: Seeing how many different parts of our society are all linked back to the river. Even these local pockets of the economy—the oil and gas in Garfield County, the agriculture around Grand Junction, the recreation near Glenwood Springs—these things are all connected to the bigger system of people’s municipal water in Denver and the dry delta in Mexico. We got a sense of how everything is feeding back into that river system.

5280: Talk to us about fracking and its impact on the Colorado River.

ZP: We’ve been trying to remain as balanced as possible in that it is a great resource for our state and for providing a cleaner alternative to coal and other forms of electricity. But we met with the former Garfield County Commissioner and member of Oil and Gas Commission for Colorado, who told us about several water quality incidents where fracking fluid has leaked into people’s residential wells. She also warned us about what we’d see through Garfield County as we paddled along: gas pads right next to the river. That was pretty shocking to me. We also saw a pipeline where they’re moving used fracking fluid from one drill site to another right on the banks of the river. There were four people posted in trucks there. They said their job was just to watch this pumping station to make sure nothing went wrong, because a spill right on the banks would have pretty dramatic consequences the whole way down. That was surprising—that the company, Halliburton in this case, was concerned enough to hire four people just to watch something and make sure nothing went wrong. It started to make us question whether the regulations were adequate in terms of how close these structures can be to the river. On one hand, we have a great resource available in our state, and it’s going to be important for solving some environmental issues. But if we don’t regulate it properly, it could do some serious damage to our state water.

5280: What’s next on the docket?

ZP: No big plans for another trip, but we’re open to the option if someone wants to hire us to do another river. We’re moving on to other projects after we wrap this up.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock