Down the Colorado River

-Zak Podmore

Zak Podmore

Last October, Will Stauffer-Norris and I, two recent college grads and field researchers for the State of the Rockies Project, snowshoed into the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. With us, we carried our winter camping gear, lightweight rafts, paddles, drysuits, plenty of food, and a simple goal: we wanted to paddle a river from source to sea. By the time we reached the Gulf of California in Mexico 113 days later, we’d discovered that there was nothing simple about that task.

The Colorado is not a simple river. Different sections of river call for very different adjectives to describe it, from wild and scenic to tamed, litigated, diverted and imperiled. In some places the Colorado is more than a river, in others it is less. It’s hard to imagine that the same body of water could take on so many roles across so many landscapes. It is at once the sculptor of the Grand Canyon with its roaring waves, the placid expanses of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and a wilderness refuge for boaters and fishermen in the mountains. Its waters are the lifeline to 30 million people living in the Southwest from San Diego to Denver, diversions provide irrigation water for about 15 percent of our country’s crops, and eventually, it becomes a network of canals in the dried out Mexican delta.

The 1,700 miles we paddled in sea kayaks and packrafts produced a story, which we’ve told in articles, blog posts, photographs, and a 50-minute documentary. We’ve spoken with officials from the Department of the Interior and the State Department, and we were fortunate enough to show a short video we made about the delta to the Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, the Director of the USGS Marcia McNutt, and the Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper at the State of the Rockies Conference in Colorado Springs. We told our story from our perspective, two kayakers who committed several months to paddling the Colorado.

But, of course, the trip barely scratched the surface of what the Colorado River means to those of us living in the arid Southwest. This summer we’re going down the Colorado again, this time floating from Rocky Mountain National Park to Lake Powell, with the goal of capturing some of the other stories from the river with the hope of generating conversation around the Colorado and its water. Features will also be produced on the river downstream of Lake Powell, including the imperiled delta region.

Beginning June 15th, our team of four researchers will spend 50 days in rafts and kayaks, taking water quality samples and creating an online profile of the Colorado. The centerpiece of the project will be an interactive, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map of the basin. As we travel downstream, the map will be populated with photos, videos, and information, which we’ll be collecting along the way. Site-specific videos of interviews with nonprofit groups, local business owners, politicians, ranchers, farmers, oil and gas developers and scientists will bring together a wide variety of perspectives on water use and conservation. Fact sheets about diversion projects, recreational areas and points of environmental concern will be listed alongside photos taken during the trip. And short video/blog updates on the expedition’s progress will be posted regularly to the website, This map-based method of reporting is unique in that it will allow people to explore the river basin according to geography as opposed to a more traditional step by step narrative. You’ll be able to follow the trip’s daily progress or click on a section of river to learn about water in a certain area.

The Colorado may not be a simple river, but it certainly is interesting. In places, the Colorado is an aesthetic and recreational treasure, in others, it lies in ecological crisis. Across seven states and in two countries, it rests on the verge of explosive political conflict. Now more than ever, water in the West is what connects us even as it divides us. Join us this summer as we explore the Colorado River and meet some of the people working to protect it. For more information, please visit

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