Life Force, Not Resource: Scenes from the Colorado River

Exploring the endangered Colorado from source to sea

AGAINST A BACKDROP OF SHRINKING reservoirs in a a decades long mega-drought and the driest period in 1,200 years, the Colorado River is burgeoning with life in spring. Snowpack—the frozen Rocky Mountain stockpile and primary water source for 40 million of us and our wild neighbors—is filling streams and tributaries on its way to the Colorado. As farmers till and irrigate, a river of birds migrates north to breeding grounds, where a cacophony of birdsong fills riparian cottonwood and willows. There are places so wild, you wouldn’t know the river is in crisis; for where there is water, there is life.

Now is a time to pause and consider our place in the watershed, in the community of living things, to reimagine our relationship to water in the American West. Go to the river… tributary, or stream, and be present with her. When we know the Colorado and her tributaries as a life force rather than a resource, we can think and act holistically, with hope.”

— Dave Showalter, author and photographer of Living River


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A field of purple flowers overlooking a lake

Fireweed in bloom lines the shores of Wall Lake, one of many alpine lakes that form the headwaters of the Yampa River high in Colorado’s Flattop Wilderness.


A small group of trumpeter swans fly over the Green River in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming. Our largest waterfowl species thrives in Seedskadee's open water through winter - roughly a 30 mile stretch of the river remains open due to the Fontenelle Dam just upstream. These magnificent birds nearly went extinct in the early 20th century, largely for the hat plume industry. Interestingly, collared Trumpeters have made the journey to the Grand Canyon and back, following much of the Colorado River's length. River flow is life. Winter at Seedskadee NWR, WY

A wedge of trumpeter swans take flight in Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming, between Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge Reservoirs along the Green River, the largest tributary of the Colorado River.


Fraser River biomass study on Fraser Flats

Trout Unlimited, Denver Water, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, volunteers, and hardy high school students gather on Fraser Flats for an October biomass study, part of the Grand County Learning by Doing Cooperative Effort for the health of the Fraser River in the Colorado River headwaters. Fish are temporarily shocked, their species, size, and weight are recorded, then they are released unharmed.


A pipeline runs through a green forest

Diverted Fraser River water bound for South Boulder Creek and Denver is pumped uphill through this pipeline east of the Winter Park Resort ski area.


Water and Navajo Dine’ People in Monument Valley - the Wiulson family: Eloyise Wilson, Henry Wilson, Cynthia Wilson, Brandon Wilson, Jeanne Holiday

Elouise Wilson carefully pours a splash of water on emerging vegetables in the family’s traditional-foods garden, where they grow corn, beans, squash, and Bears Ears potatoes. Also working the garden are Elouise’s son Brandon Wilson and daughter Cynthia Wilson and Brandon’s girlfriend, Jeanne Holiday.


Colorado Plateau Autumn

Downstream from Glen Canyon Dam and Page, Arizona, the Colorado River carved Horseshoe Bend, an incised meander in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area where the river turns back on itself.


Gila River and Whitewater Draw, AZ

Zion National Park’s vertical Colorado Plateau landscape, carved by the Virgin River, is revealed from high on the Angels Landing trail. The Virgin River, the only water source for the burgeoning city of Saint George, Utah, originates north of Zion and flows 162 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River in Lake Mead.


Colorado River Delta with Pro Natura, southwest swing

Constructed from 1931 to 1936, Hoover Dam controlled floods of the mighty Colorado River, provides irrigation water for Southwest agriculture, and generates hydroelectric power. The dam’s dimensions are staggering: 726 feet high, 1,244 feet long, and 660 feet thick at its base. Behind Hoover Dam, Lake Mead serves primarily as storage for the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as Mexico. Lake Mead, last full in 1983 as marked by white bathtub-ring high-water marks in Boulder Canyon, was at 27 percent capacity when this image was made in the summer of 2022.


Colorado River Delta Aerial mission with LiughtHawk

Tidal waters form remarkable patterns in Delta sand at the river mouth and a tidal channel gives the hopeful impression of the Colorado River flowing to the Gulf of California. Although the Colorado River no longer flows to the sea, restoration work in the Delta has returned hope in human spirit and wild remnants reinvigorating some of the Colorado River Delta, once one of the most biodiverse places on earth. (Light-Hawk aerial support.)


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Excerpted from Living River: The Promise of the Mighty Colorado by Dave Showalter (April 2023). Published by Braided River, an imprint of Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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