This story was produced by WyoFile, an independent nonprofit news organization. It is republished here with permission.
May 24, 2019, was 150 years to the day after a scraggly and ill-prepared outfit led by a one-armed Army major gathered in Green River Station, beside the outpost’s namesake watercourse, and embarked on one of the most significant river expeditions America has ever seen.
On the sesquicentennial anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s historic launch, a new band of river explorers assembled at the site to begin a bold journey down the artery of the American West — the Green and Colorado Rivers.
This time, things looked starkly different. The crew, made up of academics, scientists, educators and artists from the University of Wyoming, was a far cry from the ragtag band led by Powell. In place of the gallingly ill-suited wooden boats of Powell’s expedition, state-of-the-art 18-foot rubber rafts lined the bank. And, perhaps most notably, this crew came equipped with the tools of modern adventure such as maps, streamflow forecasts and satellite phones. These travelers were, in other words, prepared — not something Powell’s expedition had going for it as the men ventured into what was then a little-understood blank spot on the American map.
Meet UW’s Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition, which set out on that May 2019 day to follow Powell’s arduous journey. Over 70 days and some 1,000 river miles this summer, its members retraced Powell’s route and mimicked other key aspects of his expedition — like collecting scientific data. But theirs was not to be a simple journey into the past. Instead the team set out with an eye toward the future and solutions for the river system’s modern-day problems. In this way, the expedition conducted a study not only of the geology or hydrology of the Colorado River Basin, but of Western economies, policies, climate, public lands and ideologies as they relate to the overtaxed river system.
“What we thought is, ‘we have the opportunity for this sort of point-in-time examination of the system,’” said Dr. Thomas Minckley, a UW professor who led the expedition. “If you look at how the West has developed in those 150 years [since Powell] … our goal was to ask, ‘What do we want for the next 150 years given our current situation?’”
A century and a half is a mere blip in the life of the Colorado River, but much has changed in its basin since Powell’s expedition. Cities have bloomed in the desert, diversions and pipelines have been built and a complex web of regulations has been written to divvy the water to its 40 million users. What once was a large swath of unknown today encompasses five states, two basin districts, more than a dozen dams and 15 special-management areas. Add to that ever-increasing agricultural and energy development, a nearly two-decade-long drought and wild swings brought by climate change, and the picture of the Colorado River Basin is one of a riverway so overburdened it no longer reaches the sea.
It’s the river’s predicaments that prompted the SCREE trip, Minckley said. A paleo-ecologist, Minckley specializes in Western ecologies and long periods of drought. A few years ago, with the anniversary of Powell’s expedition on the horizon and the quandary of the basin’s water management fresh in his mind, he said, he began thinking about how Powell was one of the first people who took the concern of water in the West seriously.
That grew into an idea, Minckley said, as he realized “there was a broader conversation to be had about the West as it is now, taking a systematic view of it from the lens of today, but approaching it as [Powell] did.”
After all, he said, if humans want to create solutions that will affect the river 150 years from now, we’ve got to take the first steps.
“That path sort of starts today, and it takes decades to manifest itself,” he said. “We do have to start now.”
The SCREE expedition was born.
Minckley put together a team of UW academics and scientists, and they spent nearly three years planning the logistically complicated trip. Along with getting downriver with proper food, gear and guidance, they invited dozens of guests — such as water policy and management experts — to join for short stints. They also scheduled outreach events in communities along the way.
Once they shoved off from Green River, the team settled into a routine. Outside of the day-to-day breaking down and setting up of camp, members of the expedition conducted birdsong and bat-chirp surveys, collected micro-plastic samples from the water, made field sketches and gathered plant species and insects. They also talked about issues as minor as the day’s whitewater near-misses and as broad as long-term aridification, conservation and how to fix the Colorado’s outdated management policies.
Minckley said Powell was never far from their minds as they traveled through the stark and beautiful desert landscapes of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. But, he said, “our point was to look into the future rather than stay within the past.”
As it happened, their trip coincided with an extraordinary year in water, particularly in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, where runoff was recorded at 145% of average for the spring, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. This meant they were able to ride down the back of massive water — which made for a hair-raising trip through Colorado’s Cataract Canyon, where flows reached an eye-popping 55,000 cubic feet per second.
Adventure aside, Minckley said, put into the context of the river’s chronic overallocation and the 19-year drought that has maintained a stranglehold on the region, the situation is sobering.
“One year does not a drought break,” he said.
Numbers from the Bureau of Reclamation bear that out. The agency recently reported that even with the huge water year, total Colorado River system storage only sits at 55% of capacity. This is up from 49% last year, and comes after many years of declining levels in the now bathtub-ringed Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the reservoirs considered to be the storage buckets for the basin. Water managers estimate that it would take some 13 back-to-back water years exactly like 2019 to rescue the system from drought.
Minckley and Patrick Kikut, the expedition’s lead artist, noted that hoping for more water years like 2019 is not a wise strategy. Instead, what is needed is a fundamental replumbing of the regulations that dictate how water is managed.
“The scarcity of water in the West is a fact,” Kikut said. “And how we’re dealing with it right now I don’t think is adequate for the future. We’re going to need cutbacks and a whole different set of policies.”
Powell, Minckley said, “seemed to advocate for planning for deficit, not surplus. If you plan for the low end of your supply, you’ll be able to sustain. And we are not doing that.”
Spring gave way to summer as the crew wended its way south and west, plunging deeper into the Earth as rock layers climbed above. There were guests aplenty, too many campfires to count, breathtaking vistas and a couple mishaps — a raft flipped in Cataract Canyon, an engine broke down during the slog across Lake Powell.
When the crew arrived at its final destination, the approximate confluence of the Virgin and Colorado rivers (now under Lake Mead) on Aug. 1, it had amassed hours of recorded conversations, pages of notes and drawings, hundreds of scientific samples, many ideas for classroom curriculum and a pile of memories from an unforgettable experience.
One thing the team did not have? The hard-and-fast answer to the Colorado Basin’s perplexing water puzzle. But, Minckley said, they’ve got a good starting place. The next step is to begin analyzing and digesting the information they gathered, while thinking about the most effective ways to move key findings into the public conversation.
The goal all along, Minckley said, “was to get it out of the academic sphere and into the public’s hands and create a broader dialogue … We need to move toward something. That destination is not well defined, but we need to start moving toward something in a proactive way.”
Crew member Jessica Flock, an education specialist who managed the camp kitchen, said she came away with hopes that the trip will “make a positive impact on resource allocation, preservation of public lands and preservation of our communities.” She also has a new appreciation of Wyoming’s role in the western water picture.
“We play a critical role in that the decisions we make impact people downstream,” Flock said. “It’s not just about us and our needs. We need to think about all the communities downstream.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.