Rafting the Colorado River in search of what we’d lose if it ran dry
The raft will launch from a highly protected area, a place with a similar level of security to the White House, our driver tells us as we wind down a narrow road to the banks of the Colorado River. He makes a hairpin turn, and Hoover Dam comes into view, a mass of concrete wedged between walls of black rock canyon. At river level, the dam towers above, 726 feet tall, 1,244 feet long, and 660 feet thick at its base. An engineering feat. I imagine all the water pressing against the dam. What that water would do if it were free. The Bureau of Reclamation has demanded that the seven states relying on the river cut their usage in the face of megadrought, but the states cannot come to an agreement.
I want to see what we’ll lose if we run the river dry, so this morning, I’m taking a rafting tour 11 and a half miles down the Colorado. Pam West, one of four other people on the tour, says she remembers feeling the spray of water at Hoover Dam after she moved to Las Vegas in 1969. Lake Mead’s water is measured in feet above sea level, and back in the ‘60s, the lowest it ever hit was 1,088 feet. She could never have imagined what it would look like today, at 1,046 feet. Twenty years ago, when the megadrought began and the water levels dropped, when the bathtub ring began to grow and once-submerged islands appeared, she came to the reservoir and wept.
There are some 450 miles of river in front of us, 1,000 behind. The five of us — me, West, her friend from Florida, and two visitors from Ohio — clamber into the barge-like raft to begin a journey that will span only a fraction of the river’s length. The water around us glints and shifts in color: navy, turquoise, emerald. Before the river was dammed, the water was brown with silt and sand, but today it’s clear, with a visibility of 25 feet in most places along the stretch we’ll be traveling, our guide, Kathleen Wood, says.
Wood starts the motor, and we glide. We are in Black Canyon, suspended somewhere between Nevada and Arizona, and my cell phone’s clock toggles between Pacific and Mountain Time. I’ve never seen the river from this vantage before — I’ve only ever visited shorelines accessible by foot — and I marvel at its abundance. Patches of green erupt from the cliffs and riverbanks: arrow weed, mesquite, creosote, brittlebush, which, in some crags, blooms bright yellow. In Lone Palm Canyon, what was once a single palm tree has, over the years, proliferated into a dozen.
Wood points out features I might have missed. Desert varnish, a charcoal-colored, oxidized coating that forms in arid environments, smears across canyon walls. In one cove, a stream of geothermal water shoots from volcanic rock, as if it were a spigot, and hits the cold river with a burst of steam. Maidenhair fern, which, Wood tells us, is difficult to grow in controlled environments, drape from the ceiling of a cave shaped like an ear. We drift by a cluster of pink-needled barrel cacti clinging to a cliff, and Wood grins. The past few years, they’d been parched and shriveled from the prolonged drought, she says. But now, after last year’s monsoon and this winter’s storms, the cacti are swollen.
Wood tells us to look out for animals. Red-tailed hawks. Common coots. We should pay special attention to bighorn sheep, whose bodies blend in with the rock. Wood’s worked on the river since the 1980s, and for decades she’s kept a journal documenting what she sees each time she’s out. She’s logged bank beavers and egrets, peregrine falcons and herons, and, every once in a while, a bald eagle.
August 11, 1999: “Warm, sunny, south breeze. Beautiful day. Lots of sheep. 5 to 6 groups of 15-20 or more.”
October 16, 2002: “Beautiful, peaceful morning. Brisk upriver. Laid in sun like a lizard to warm up, just below H.D. catwalk. Two osprey dancing at site.”
April 12, 2006: “Cool breeze until 10 am. Cool gust, wind in middle of trip. Sheep, ewes and babies.”
When I ask her what changes she’s noticed since she started working on the river, she doesn’t miss a beat. The heat in the canyon. The drought. “You hardly see sheep anymore,” she says.
In 1857, Joseph C. Ives, a lieutenant who would, during the Civil War, fight for the Confederates, tried to map the Colorado by traveling upriver in a steamboat. When he reached Black Canyon, the boat hit a rock, leading to the eventual end of the expedition. “The region is, of course, altogether valueless,” Ives later wrote. “It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”
Of course, his prediction was wrong. Today, the Colorado is one of the most regulated rivers in the country. From the beginning, we took too much from the river. In 1922, the federal government brought together seven Western states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Arizona — to create the Colorado River Compact and apportioned 16 million acre-feet of water to divide among themselves. Notably, the agreement excluded tribal nations, the original inhabitants of the Colorado River basin, and Mexico, where the river empties. (Mexico would gain rights to the river some twenty years later, and tribes would reclaim them in piecemeal fashion through courts and legislation.) The year 1922 was unusually wet; in reality, the Colorado normally carried 14 million acre feet per year, not 16. Today, we’re lucky if the river flows at 12 million.
I grew up in Southern California and depended on the Colorado River. I didn’t know that. I only knew my water was reliable and seemed everlasting. Much of the water I drank was imported, via aqueduct, from Lake Havasu, a reservoir on the border between California and Arizona. Kids would talk about “going to the river” with their families for the weekend, but my parents weren’t river people, so we never went for fun. I do remember stopping at Lake Havasu on our way back from a road trip to Arizona when I was 10 or 11. As we walked over a replica of the London Bridge, made with the original’s exterior granite blocks (a placard said), my mom rolled her eyes at the obviously drunk people stumbling around us. I had no idea that this was a major water source for millions of people, including me.
A decade later, when I finished college and returned to California to report for the Los Angeles Times, rivers captured my interest. That year had been a rainy one, ending what was, until the current drought, the driest period in California’s recorded history, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack was bigger than any time in recent memory. Then, in June 2017, a heat wave melted most of that snow, and rivers to the south were now colder and faster than they’d been in years. People accustomed to the low, weak water of drought-stricken rivers were drowning. One afternoon in July, I sat by the Kern River in central California and watched the water churn past, stronger than any water I’d ever seen.
On the Colorado River raft, we drifted past an old concrete tower, now home to cliff swallow nests. A few miles downstream was another tower, this one wooden and rickety, connected to the opposite side of the canyon by a suspended steel line. Before Hoover Dam was constructed, Wood said, men would walk a mile from their quarters along a path built into the cliff, cross the river by way of pulley, and descend the tower to read the gauge at the bottom, which measured the river’s water level. Why, I wondered, did they have to go through all that trouble if they could’ve just paddled upstream instead?
Wood explained: Before damming, the river was too powerful to paddle upstream.
During the late spring, I pulled a back muscle attempting to hoist a heavy suitcase onto a storage shelf. For days, it spasmed, and I feared I was stuck with chronic pain. Then, I went to the Colorado. It was a hot day, around 100 degrees, but the water was 53. When I jumped in, the cold shocked me, like a series of blows to my entire body. Water approaching 50 degrees quickly can induce hypothermia, but I stayed in for a few minutes, watching ducks drift lazily downstream. On the shore, water evaporated from my body within minutes. At home, I noticed my back pain was gone.
I visited the Colorado many more times last year, mostly during the summer as a respite from the intense heat. We’d throw our towels and chairs onto a rock at Willow Beach and swim out to a small island, emerging before we lost feeling in our toes. I loved the first shock of the cold; it always jolted me into feeling every part of my body.
During my final visit to Willow Beach in October last year, a large swath of riverbed previously covered by water was now dry, exposing humps of black sludge and slime that smelled of dead algae. I was first horrified, then confused. A friend reminded me that scheduled releases of water from Hoover Dam were lighter in the winter, and I was struck by our hubris. The water was low because people decided it should be.
After three hours on the river, we docked at the Willow Beach marina, and filed into a van to drive back to the rafting company’s parking lot. Purple and yellow wildflowers bloomed along the side of the road, new life after the winter’s heavy rains. Despite the rain, the drought is not over. It’s gotten so desperate that the Desert Research Institute, with Save Red Rock, has begun seeding clouds in canyons. Yet miles west of us, new houses and subdivisions were going up at the edges of Las Vegas. In the decades she’s lived here, Pam West has seen millions of people move to the area — kids who will have no idea where their water comes from.
“One day,” West says, “we’ll turn on the tap and water won’t come out.”