Our nation's most vital waterways are drying up at an alarming rate due to global warming, increased human water use, and other man-made impacts. Nowhere is this crisis seen as dramatically than in the American West, with its longest drought in 1,200 years. Two of our nation’s critical lifelines—the Rio Grande and the Colorado River—are shrinking tragically with every passing day.
After spending years traveling the world on assignment, National Geographic Photographer Pete McBride realized that the world’s natural places he spent years documenting were changing drastically due to the disappearance of freshwater. He has spent the last two decades trying to bring awareness to this issue through photography and storytelling. Still, McBride calls for individuals and companies to take action to save our rivers and water.
Now, an effort from Finish Dishwashing is also helping to raise awareness of the crisis affecting freshwater resources everywhere. The Finish brand worked with a Texas sculptor to craft a one-of-a-kind sculpture that depicts the very thing it is honoring. Made from limestone that is native to Texas, the monument draws inspiration from rock formations, waterflow, waterfalls, flora, and fauna unique to many of the endangered bodies of water in the Southwest. Placed at the bottom of a lake in an at-risk area in Texas, the HOPEFUL MONUMENT is the first monument created with the hope that it will never be seen—that is, it will not be revealed unless water levels drop drastically low. While most monuments commemorate the past, this one is meant to spur action for the future—to inspire us to protect our most precious resource: water.
“Our drinking water doesn’t come from the tap, but rather rivers and lakes which supply the vast majority of all our water systems. Without them, then our taps will, and they already are, run dry and/or be polluted,” says McBride.
Pete McBride, National Geographic Photographer and Water Advocate
McBride knows firsthand about the water crisis in the West, as he has documented it in his award-winning film, Chasing Water, and book, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict. A photographer and Colorado native, McBride's mission is to raise awareness for the Colorado River and all American rivers, or arteries, as he refers to them.
After witnessing a dramatic loss of water in the Colorado River near his home, McBride expanded his photography career to be one that’s focused on environmental advocacy to protect the threatened resources of his home region, the American Southwest.
“I hope 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,” says McBride, who was named a National Geographic Freshwater Hero for his work documenting rivers worldwide.
The National Geographic Photographer says he’s a “curious citizen who cares about his backyard river” and called to protect the waterway. And he’s now calling everyone else to do their part as well.
A Vital River Under Threat: The Rio Grande
On McBride’s latest assignment in Texas, he’s standing in a dried-up riverbed in the Rio Grande River, a spot locals tragically refer to as the “Rio Sand.” Just an hour south of El Paso, America’s fourth longest river is only ankle-deep in some locations. As it flows further south along the U.S./Mexico border, the river will become a trickle—and in many places—it runs completely dry.
The Rio Grande supports more than 16 million people in the US and Mexico, including 22 indigenous nations. Alarmingly, this vital river system in North America is vanishing at a dramatic rate. Flowing from the Rocky Mountains and later forming the U.S.-Mexico border, this threatened river and its ecosystems have been impacted by agriculture withdrawals, rising temperatures, and unprecedented drought.
The Rio Grande has seen devastating impacts from climate change. New Mexico, like much of the West, has been battling unusually hot and dry weather for the last two decades. The river has also been hit by historic drought, with the lower Rio Grande, the border between Texas and Mexico, dried up for over a hundred miles.
“Fresh water is one of the most important, limited natural resources,” says McBride as he stands in the barren riverbed. “We can live without oil; we can't live without water.”
America’s Most Endangered River—The Mighty Colorado
Seeing firsthand his own home dry-up in the water crisis had a major impact on the National Geographic Photographer: “I grew up on the [Colorado] River, so I always had a fond love for its beauty and wonder. When I followed it to its end and saw it run completely dry, I realized there needed to be more voices speaking on behalf of the river itself.”
The “lifeline of the West,” as the Colorado River is known, supplies drinking water to 40 million people in the U.S., fuels hydropower in eight states, and is a critical resource for 30 tribal nations and agricultural communities, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. It’s also the most at-risk river in the U.S. and is now considered the most endangered river in the world by conservation nonprofit American Rivers. The once mighty Colorado River has been drying out for the last twenty years due to overuse and historic drought.
“The Colorado River is the frontline of climate change,” says McBride. “This remarkable river system supports over 5 million acres of farmland, where 95 percent of our winter vegetables come from. If you like eating salads, you are eating the Colorado River.”
As the climate crisis worsens, the water levels plummet. Today, the Colorado River runs at only 50% of its traditional flow, while its largest reservoirs in the United States: Lake Powell and Lake Meade, fell to 22% during the fall of 2022.
Everyday Actions to Save Water
The water crisis is a daunting and undeniably complex issue, but that doesn’t mean that people in their daily life can’t help protect our most valuable resource. If we don’t take action now, there won’t be time to save these rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and other bodies of water, warns McBride.
“Become more aware of your waterways. Our voices can make a difference. Rivers need more advocates,” advises the National Geographic Explorer, adding, “You can use less water by reducing meat consumption (meat requires a lot of water to produce), using less water-intensive, non-native thirsty plants in your yard, like bluegrass, and reducing how often you run your water systems for dishes, etc. We need agriculture as we need to eat; we just need to become more efficient and mindful about everything: from what is on our plate to how we clean them and use our taps."
McBride believes these are just some of the everyday actions we, as consumers, can take. Another small change that will make a ripple of impact? Use your dishwasher and stop pre-rinsing. Finish agrees. The brand has a longstanding history of driving impact and inspiring change through its ‘Skip the Rinse’ purpose campaign, which encourages consumers to skip pre-rinsing their dishes before placing them in the dishwasher, ultimately saving up to 20 gallons of water each time. If we all skipped the rinse, we could save up to 150 billion gallons of water every year.
Other water-saving actions include turning off the shower/faucet while lathering or brushing teeth and installing a greywater recycling system.
“Our fresh water is a limited resource,” warns McBride. “If we don’t get involved on some level, we will [see] more of that resource vanish.”