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Saving the Colorado, America’s Most Endangered River – Video + Interview with Pete McBride

When we think of the Colorado River, we think of its power and its beauty, running from the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains and twisting, turning, and splashing through seven western states and two countries. The Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon—a symbol as iconic to the United States as the bald eagle or the Statue of Liberty. The Colorado sustains more than 30 million people in the Southwest alone with food, water, and power, not to mention the wildlife and fish, and millions of other people who eat food from the basin and flock to its waters or stand in awe atop the rim of the Grand Canyon. But this signature river is running dry from our excessive thirst for its waters and power. So much so, the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.

Today, American Rivers released its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, and the river at the top—the most endangered river in the nation—is the mighty Colorado. A century of water management policies and practices promoting wasteful water use have put the river at a critical crossroads.

In conjunction with the Most Endangered Rivers report, filmmaker and photographer Pete McBride released a short film to help tell the story of the endangered Colorado River. The footage he used is pulled from his award-winning film, Chasing Water. In Chasing Water, Pete set out to document the flow of the Colorado River from source to sea. 

We caught up with Pete this week to ask him a few questions about the Colorado River and how we can all lend a hand to save this precious resource…

Adventure: How did you become interested in the Colorado River?

Pete McBride: I grew in Colorado on the river, using it daily—irrigating our hayfields on our family ranch, swimming in it, drinking it, etc. I even learned to fish and boat on its tributaries. I guess I’ve intrinsically been interested in the river by upbringing and birth. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, after I’d seen much of the world working on assignment as an adventure photographer, that the demands on our rivers and the plight of global fresh water were becoming more concerning, that it occurred to me how remarkably unique and important the Colorado River system is. 

A: How did your project—both the book and the film—get started? And how have you continued that work?

PM: By coincidence, I was assigned a short magazine story for National Geographic Adventure to cover Jon Waterman’s source to sea paddle. I decided to do the story with an aerial perspective since I am lucky that my father, John, is a passionate bush pilot (I hired him at cost which he kindly agreed to). After only a few flights, I quickly realized that this was a very big, important story, much larger than just a magazine story. It has since evolved into dozens of magazine stories, a book, a film, a museum exhibit and ongoing lectures.

A: Many environmental issues, especially issues this large, can be depressing or overwhelming for some. How do you stay inspired? How do you hope to inspire and motivate others?

PM: When I give talks on the subject, I often remind people that I am not an expert, neither a lawyer, a scientist or a hydrologist by training, just a curious citizen who cares about his backyard river. So if I can raise awareness, anyone can and that is the key. My hope is that combining beautiful imagery and a human story around a tough subject, will help the public become more inspired to understand the issue and become more active. We Americans are all users of the Colorado River—even if you live in New York, you eat the Colorado River when you bite into a salad—so we all need to become more cognizant of it and our watersheds as a whole. That is the first step, I believe, to restoring a river so many love and cherish, is getting the public more engaged. 

A: Why should Americans outside of the Colorado Basin care about what’s happening on the Colorado?

PM: In addition to food production that all Americans enjoy (all U.S. winter lettuce and carrot production comes from the Basin) recreation is a huge economic engine that affects many nationwide. A recent study of the Basin’s recreation value produced a staggering figure. Recreation activities from National Parks, boating, fishing, picnicking, etc bring in 26 billion dollars annually. That puts the CO River ahead of Progressive Insurance and US Airways on any Forbes list. So there is value to our national economy as a result of this river—not just as a plumbing network, but flowing. 

On a more philosophical level, I think it is a national and international treasure and it is good for our collective soul to know it exists and is sustained in its entirety as a viable, flowing river.

A: If you could get everyone in the U.S. to do one thing to help the Colorado, what would that be? 

PM: Get involved on any level no matter how big or small. Whether that is writing your political leaders or smart-scaping your front yard (using less water intensive plants and shrubs versus standard front lawns) or just turning off your faucet when you brush your teeth, that is a start.  Pocket books can play a huge role too. For instance, local agriculture that supports water conservation can play a role. Basically, our fresh water is a limited a resource and the Colorado River is an example of what happens when we ask too much—it disappears. If we don’t get involved on some level, we will [see] more of that resource vanish.

[And then at the end] To learn more about what you can do to help, please visit American Rivers’ website.