The Southwest is drying. During a 730-mile rafting trip down the Colorado River's main tributary, Heather Hansman (MJour'10) saw water scarcity up close.
When Heather Hansman (MJour’10) stepped into her single-person inflatable raft on the Green River Lakes in Wyoming, she felt a surge of excitement, followed by a crash of panic.
It was May 2016. The frigid water was high from snowmelt gushing in from the surrounding Wind River Mountains. Hansman was at the origin of the Green River, the largest tributary of the Colorado River, about to embark on her longest rafting journey yet.
“It was time to actually do what I said I was going to do — which was terrifying,” said Hansman, a Seattle-based environmental journalist and long-time raft guide.
Over nearly three months, Hansman paddled 730 miles, down the entirety of the Green to its confluence with the Colorado River in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Along the way, she talked with farmers, ranchers, fishermen, government officials and scientists about the fate of water in the rapidly drying Southwest.
For decades, the rivers that make up the Colorado River Basin, including the Green, have been drained and diverted to bolster population growth in the booming West. But the rivers have reached their limits, with water demands exceeding dwindling supplies — putting increasing pressure on cities, rural communities and river ecosystems to adapt to a new reality.
“I was shocked at how out of touch I had become, even though I was trying to pay attention,” said Hansman, 35, who recently published a book about her journey, Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West. “The creep of apathy started to feel scarier than drowning alone in some Utah canyon,” she said. “And I think subconsciously, I wanted an adventure too.”
Unlike the Colorado River, where every drop of water is allocated to users, the Green still has water up for grabs. But due to population growth, epic droughts, rising temperatures and decreasing stream flows due to climate change, possibly not for long.
“I wanted to try and understand that vulnerability,” Hansman said, “and I wanted to do so from the river.”
Lives at Stake
The Green is an integral part of the Colorado River Basin system, which supplies water to approximately 40 million people in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico. Water flowing through the basin is a crucial cultural and economic resource for 29 federally recognized Indian tribes, and irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands.
After the Green feeds into the Colorado, the water helps fill Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest man-made reservoirs in the United States. Due to a nearly 20-year drought and increasing water demands, both reservoirs have fallen to dangerously low levels, with mandatory cutbacks for users likely in the near future.
“A lot of lives and livelihoods are really at stake,” said Hansman, who has written about Western water issues for nearly a decade.
Complicating matters, there’s more water promised to users than exists in the system of which the Green is part. This means that if everyone used the amount they’re legally entitled to, there wouldn’t be enough to go around. The deficit stems from the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which dictates how the seven member states and Mexico use the river basin’s water. The original drafters overestimated how much water there is.
The agreement assumes availability of 18 million acre-feet per year, but the historical average is closer to 13. Currently, the seven states and Mexico use approximately 16.5 million acre-feet per year. One acre-foot of water equals 326,000 gallons, or the amount it would take to flood a football field one foot deep.
“Even a washed-up raft guide can see that those numbers don’t add up,” said Hansman.
And the numbers don’t take into account annual fluctuations in water supplies. Many experts have predicted the West will continue to get drier and drier as average temperatures increase, a longterm phenomenon called aridification.
“There isn’t enough water to keep up with demands,” said Doug Kenney, director of CU Boulder’s Water Policy Program. “And supplies will continue to decrease because of climate change.”
This leaves Westerners in a tough spot.
“People want the water they were promised,” Kenney said. “But the fact remains, someone has to use less.”
Life on the Green
At the beginning of her journey, Hansman’s arms ached from fighting the upstream wind and roaring current. She was sunburned and her palms were raw from paddling. She longed for a beer and a popsicle.
She worried about hypothermia, getting lost on the unmarked river, or being murdered in the middle of the night as she camped on the riverbank. She prayed her recently dislocated shoulder wouldn’t fail her.
But the experienced rafter soon found a welcome rhythm: Paddle, eat, write, sleep, repeat.
Most days, she wore the same outfit: Pink board shorts, a plaid snap-button shirt, Chacos shoes and a blue ball cap to shield her eyes from the sun. Occasionally, adventurous friends joined her for short sections of the trip.
She paddled past the place where water is diverted to the Wasatch Front, home of Salt Lake City’s swelling suburbs. She navigated legendary rapids, including the Gates of Lodore in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, infamous for wrecking one of explorer John Wesley Powell’s boats when he first navigated the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869.
She passed through towering red canyons and sprawling oil and gas developments. She toured a dam, visited an insect researcher and an Indian reservation. She learned about endangered fish from a biologist and attended a heated Bureau of Reclamation meeting.
Back on the river, she mulled what she’d learned. She considered how cities and rural areas might share drought’s burden. She thought about decreasing streamflows, water conservation, river ecosystem health and the challenge of balancing growing urban and rural water demands.
She visited farmers and ranchers to try to understand how agriculture is adapting. In the Colorado River Basin, agriculture uses approximately 80 percent of the water supply and holds a large majority of the West’s senior water rights. Negotiating compromises won’t be easy — but, Hansman discovered, the affected parties are better informed and more thoughtful than she’d realized.
“My assumptions about ranchers and ag producers were really upended,” she said. “A lot of those people are doing some of the most detailed, thoughtful, on-theground work and research about dealing with drought and climate change, and I had assumed they were just using all the water they could, just to do it.”
It was late July 2016 when Hansman and three friends, who had joined her for the last leg of her trip, reached its end in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. On their final day, they ate peanut butter, pita bread and chocolate, and passed around a tiny bottle of champagne.
In the morning, Hansman walked down to the spot where the Green meets the Colorado and dipped her toes in the water. She’d been writing about Western water issues for years, and yet the experience augmented her sense of urgency. She hoped the book she would write would help the rest of us feel it. Because there are hard choices ahead.
“I had to be gone, to be in it, to see the good and the bad,” she would write in the book’s final chapter.“...For me, it took that constant contact to start to understand the complexity.”
In our print edition, this story appears under the title "Downriver." Comment on this story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.