The mighty Colorado River begins life in the Rocky Mountains, and stretches 1,450 miles from one end to the other, crossing the southwestern United States and into Mexico before emptying into the Gulf of California. Its vast bounty shone out to early settlers like an oasis in the desert, although one of its original chroniclers, John Wesley Powell, presciently predicted that combining arid land and civilization would eventually lead to crisis.
In 1922, the Colorado River Compact divvied up the river's water rights among seven American, and two Mexican, states. However, there were two major problems with the agreement. One, the allocations were based on an unusually wet spell; the average river flow is less than was assumed, and those upstream soon used their allotment. Second, the agreement, and the enormous growth in population and industry along the river's length and in its vicinity, led to the Colorado becoming the "most dammed, diverted river basin in the world" – so much so, in fact, that the river rarely if ever reaches the delta in the Gulf of California. It is a problem that is likely only to be exacerbated by continued population growth and by climate change diminishing the glaciers that help feed the river at its source.
A new documentary, Watershed, narrated by Robert Redford, examines the state of the river through the eyes of a half-dozen very different people, from an Outward Bound coach to a fly-fishing guide and an artisan cheese maker, all of whom rely on the Colorado in many different ways. Producer James Redford discussed the movie and the river with Discovery News:
Discovery News: Explain to me the significance of the fact that the Colorado River now rarely reaches the Gulf of California.
James Redford: The impact is significant, because you have an area that, as little as 50 years ago before the dams went in, was one of the primary migratory bird stopovers in North America. You had a local economy, you had a shrimp community and communities that lived along the river; now you have communities that have to drive an hour with their boats to even get to the water. You’ve basically taken an arable area and turned it into a desert.
DN: What was the catalyst for focusing on this particular subject?
JR: I grew up part-time in Utah, went to college in Colorado, and I am in love with the west. And when you love something, you’re always aware of the things you perceive to be a threat. And the issue of water shortage – not only in terms of environmental impact, but potential threats to way of life and ways of living, is something that’s always been on my mind, that’s been on my family’s mind. It’s a big issue that people don’t think about for the most part.
DN: This is not a doom-and-gloom movie. Yes, it highlights the problems, but it also shows the value and importance of the river in a very positive way.
JR: Sometimes you have to do the tough documentary; I’m doing one right now about the dangers of flame retardants that are in our furniture – and for that we don’t pull any punches. But sometimes that doesn't work if you’re just trying to create baselines of awareness, particularly in the west – the western mindset is not a negative doom and gloom mindset. It’s a can-do mindset.
DN: An important focus of the movie is agriculture, which consumes 70 percent of the basin's water. What needs to be done to reduce agricultural impact on the river basin?
JR: Nobody’s asking big agriculture to shut down. They just need to do things differently. I mean, we all go through periods of change. They need to become more efficient in how they use their water, and they need to look at water quality as well. Not only do they need to use less water, but the water that they do use, they’ve got to try not to put so many dangerous chemicals in the runoff. Because agriculture doesn’t just use water, it adds a burden to the water quality. And there’s a lot of efficiency to be gained. When you look at the population increase that’s coming, you don’t have to panic if everybody just makes the right move in terms of efficiency. It isn’t a hopeless situation, but sometimes it’s very hard to get companies to change their ways when they have quarterly profits to report.
DN: You haven't just produced a documentary and released it out into the wild to fend for itself, as it were. You've integrated it into an online presence that helps inform folks what they can do.
JR: Our website is www.watershedmovie.com, and pretty soon we’re going to be posting there an action item for people to make a pledge to purchase water rights that are not being used, so that that water can be diverted back into the delta. In terms of what people can do in their own lives, there’s all kinds of information out there. Our film is being hosted right now by Whole Foods, in their DoSomethingReel festival.
It’s an online and a traveling film festival that they have in their stores; they host one movie a month for six months, and Watershed is the movie of the month for May. And that website contains all kinds of suggestions for what people can do in their personal lives.
DN: Are you optimistic?
JR: I lived in a tiny microcosm of hope, and I think that’s why I’m optimistic. In the north fork of the Provo River, where my family has the Sundance Resort and we have a large ranch, when I was a little boy in the 60s when my father bought that property, it was a dust bowl. It was a dust bowl because people were trying to make a living off sheep herding. And they were driving way too many sheep on the land; it was a dead end game because it just wasn’t working. And when my father bought the land and preserved it, I saw with my own eyes that an area that used to be very bleak, no predators, most of the wildlife gone, dusty dusty dusty, is now a paradise. If you just give Nature a chance, it will heal itself.
The Horseshoe Bend, a horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River, is seen near the town of Page, Arizona, USA, 21 September 2011. It is located five miles downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It can be viewed from the steep cliff above. (Wolfgang Thieme, Corbis)