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Tracking the Colorado River explains why it never quite makes it to the Sea of Cortez

In "Where the Water Goes," the author takes us on a tour from the river's headwaters to where it ends, in a sandy desert well short of its destination

2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist in General Nonfiction

In 1976, when I was twenty-one, I spent the summer living in a rented house in Colorado Springs and working on the grounds crew of an apartment complex on what was then the outskirts of the city. During most of the week, my coworkers and I moved hoses and sprinklers around the property, to keep the grass green, and then we mowed what we had grown. We had to be at work at six-thirty but weren’t allowed to begin mowing until seven, to allow the residents to sleep in, so for the first half hour we devised alternative methods of waking them up, such as slowly dragging shovels across parking lots. Watering was like a race. The grass began to turn brown almost the moment we moved our sprinklers, partly because we were a mile above sea level in what is essentially a desert, and partly because the apartment complex had been built on porous ground, on the site of an old quarry. One night, I dreamed that one of the Rain Bird rotary sprinklers we used at work was keeping me awake by rhythmically spraying me in bed, and I made a mental note to ask my housemate not to water my room while I was trying to sleep.

Author David Owen. (Photo by Laurie Gaboardi)

Among the many questions I failed to ask myself that summer was where all the water we used at work came from. All I knew was that every time I attached a hose to a spigot and turned it on, I could run it full force until it was time to go home. I now know that the city’s water in those days came from local surface streams and wells. I also know that, since then, the Colorado Springs metropolitan area has more than doubled in population and sprawled far into the Eastern Plains, and that today much of its water comes from the other side of the mountains. The most important source is the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, a vast man-made water-moving network a hundred miles or so southwest of Colorado-Big Thompson. It collects snowmelt from the watershed of the Fryingpan River—a tributary of the Roaring Fork, which is a tributary of the Colorado—and moves it under the Continental Divide to users in the state’s southeastern quadrant. The Fry-Ark consists of six big dams, sixteen small dams, 4 miles of canals, 27 miles of tunnels, and 282 miles of conduits. It was authorized by President Kennedy in 1962 and took almost twenty years to complete, and the average user of the water it delivers doesn’t know that it exists.

I learned about the Fry-Ark not long ago, while following the Colorado River from beginning to end. I had decided that a useful way to think about water issues of all kinds would be to trace the course of a single river, to see where the water came from and where it went. The Colorado is an ideal subject for such a study, both because of its economic importance—it has been called “the American Nile”—and because at fourteen hundred miles it’s short enough to allow a traveler to trace its course but long enough to cross a great deal of varied terrain. Following the Colorado also gave me an opportunity to wander around in a part of the country where I once believed I was destined to spend my adult life (living in a cabin, climbing mountains, making pemmican, eating plants I’d read about in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and writing poems in a battered notebook).

I didn’t travel the river in a boat, the way John Wesley Powell did; I followed it on land, in a succession of rental cars. During several weeklong trips, I explored as much of the Colorado as I could without getting wet. I drove more than three thousand miles; made many stops, detours, and redundant loops; and listened to three of the five volumes of the audiobook of Game of Thrones. I also received what I now think of as a graduate-level education in the river and its many dependents, human and otherwise.

The Colorado provides an especially useful introduction to water issues because we literally use it up. The river’s historical outlet is at the northern end of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, where the Baja Peninsula joins the mainland like an arm attaching itself to a torso. But people who depend on the Colorado divert so much water as the river winds through the southwestern United States that since the early 1960s it has seldom flowed all the way to the end, and since the late 1990s has made it only once. There’s a point, not far from the border, where the water simply runs out, and from there to the gulf what ought to be the river’s streambed becomes difficult to distinguish from the arid expanse on either side. For most of the past fifty years, the Colorado’s historical delta, which once was a complex and intermittently verdant wetland, has been a million-acre desert. People who drive into or out of the town of San Luis Rio Colorado, in the Mexican state of Sonora, sometimes complain about having to pay a six-peso toll to cross a bridge that spans only sand.

I began my journey, more or less by accident, very close to the river’s headwaters. I’d been interviewing someone in Eagle, Colorado, 130 miles west of Denver, and I had a dinner appointment that evening back in Boulder, so I typed the address of the restaurant into the Google navigation app on my phone and was surprised but pleased to see that the suggested route ignored I-70, which runs right past Eagle, and took me instead up into the mountains on minor roads and then alongside the Colorado almost all the way to its source before crossing the divide and descending into Boulder from the west.

The route began on a two-lane highway. Then the road stopped having painted lines; then it stopped having pavement; then it shrank to the width of a driveway. I got out of my car and looked down at a long coal train passing far below me, on tracks that followed the twisting stream. The train ran through a short tunnel and along a skinny shelf that had been carved into a talus slope above the far bank, perhaps a hundred feet higher than the water. Much of the Colorado is too narrow, too shallow, too rugged, too plunging, and too full of big rocks ever to have been used for commercial navigation, the way the Mississippi always has been, but, for as long as humans have lived or traveled nearby, its valleys and canyons have served as transportation corridors through what would otherwise be impassable terrain.

The canyon I was looking at was named for Sir St. George Gore, an Anglo-Irish baronet, who passed through on horseback in 1854 on his way farther west. Gore was the absentee owner of seven thousand acres in Ireland. In the late 1840s, during the Great Famine, he had evicted tenants who couldn’t pay their rents and sent them off to North America in ships overloaded with the starving, and he was so despised by the tenants who remained that in 1849 they murdered his agent. An informational sign I’d seen earlier said that he and his party, during their western trip, had “slaughtered 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 elk and deer, and 100 bears.” Gore, who was known as the Buffalo Slayer, did almost all the killing himself. He also shot many thousands of mountain sheep, coyotes, wolves, and birds. He was indifferent to the suffering of animals he had merely wounded, and he left the vast majority of the carcasses to rot. His luggage included a brass bed, a steel bathtub decorated with his coat of arms, a fur-covered commode, French carpets, 112 horses, eighteen oxen, forty mules, four dozen hunting dogs, six large wagons, twenty-one carts, seventy-five rifles, many shotguns and pistols, and three tons of ammunition. Among the members of his traveling party were a team of taxidermists and a man whose only job was tying flies. The legendary mountain man Jim Bridger served as one of his guides. The U.S. secretary of the interior denounced Gore’s slaughter, which he said threatened the food supplies of several Indian tribes, but the government took no action. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody called Gore “a sportsman among a thousand.” Gore returned to Ireland in 1857, the year Lieutenant Ives began his expedition up the river from its other end. He visited the United States once more, in 1874, but this time his destination was Florida, where he focused on ridding the Everglades of alligators, egrets, and flamingos.

The ribbon of water at the bottom of the Gore Canyon looked sinuous and beautiful and cold—it was greenish-gray and churning—but the road I was following wasn’t much of a road, and it kept shrinking. Then, near Kremmling, I noticed that my phone didn’t say I was one hour and four minutes from Boulder, as I’d thought it did; it said I was one day and four hours. And suddenly I understood that when I’d entered the address of my destination, back in Eagle, I must have accidentally clicked the “pedestrian” icon on my navigation app: Google thought I was on foot. Getting to Boulder from that spot by car was somewhat complicated, but I didn’t regret my mistake, because the complete trip took me alongside streams and lakes and reservoirs and diversions.  

My journey along the Colorado took me to farms, government offices, campgrounds, power plants, ghost towns, fracking sites, aqueducts, reservoirs, and pumping stations, and it gave me opportunities to lose myself in some truly jaw-dropping topography. My journey ended in Mexico, in a truck belonging to someone else. In that truck, a Mexican environmentalist drove me across an expanse of sand to a point where the river ceased to exist. Where had the water gone? By then, I had a pretty good idea.


Buy “Where the Water Goes” at BookBar.
Interview: “Where the Water Goes” author David Owen.

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