The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains, collecting snowmelt as it meanders through an alpine valley. Across a vast swath of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, the river grows as it takes in major tributaries: the Gunnison, the Dolores, the Green and others.
The Colorado River Basin encompasses more than 246,000 square miles in seven U.S. states and northern Mexico. On its 1,450-mile journey, the river scours the Grand Canyon and flows into the country’s two largest reservoirs.
The heavy use of the Colorado River has made the Southwest the region it is today, with sprawling suburbs, swimming pools, golf courses and lush farms in the desert.
Water diverted from the river flows from taps in Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas and throughout much of Southern California, supplying nearly 40 million people.
But with the Colorado River now in a worsening shortage, the Southwest is starting to grapple with difficult questions about how to respond — and how to adapt to a drier future.
To document the Colorado’s central role in life in the Southwest, Los Angeles Times photojournalist Luis Sinco traveled throughout the watershed and captured images that reveal how this river — grand and majestic, yet fragile — is under growing strains and is being pushed beyond its limits. Here is what he saw through his lens.
It’s February and the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains are buried in snow. Far below, in the meadow at the bottom of my frame, stands a line of charred trees. In 2020, the East Troublesome fire burned more than 193,000 acres and raged around Grand Lake, Colo., and into Rocky Mountain National Park.
In a time of climate change, all our majestic spaces are threatened by wildfire, which recently burned portions of Sequoia, Yosemite and the Kaibab. Large swaths of the Alaskan tundra burned as temperatures soared to records above 90 degrees when I visited there in 2018. Sometimes, while covering ever bigger infernos every year, I think the whole world is on fire.
I followed a route from Denver into the Rockies and then through Vail and Grand Junction. The area includes one large city, one of the most exclusive ski resort areas in the world, the congressional district of ultraconservative Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert and the farms and railyards where the Colorado meets the Gunnison.
Creeks cut below the icy surface snow to feed the river, which gains speed and volume as it slopes into the Great Basin. I photographed snow clumped on dried vegetation along the bank, and I pictured it someday coming out of my bathroom faucet in L.A.
Fish and game are plentiful, the steep and rocky terrain forested, the water fresh and clean. The skiing and snowmobiling are great and there’s lots of room. Heavy snowfall intermittently collects on roads and slows the drive. It’s totally OK. It’s like heaven on Earth, though some locals insist it’s becoming Californicated, whatever that means.
Denver has appeal. It has major sports and culture and ranks 19th among the most populous American cities. People mostly have relatively healthful lifestyles. The mile-high metropolis has about 3 million people and is expected to grow by more than 500,000 by 2030. Home prices, homelessness and crime are rising. New communities of more affordable housing sprout on the high plains east of the city.
Just about every place around the Colorado River is growing. About 40 million people rely on the river. Agriculture requires water to grow food. Nature needs water from the river to maintain the river’s ecological balance. Water sustains civilization. Half of the human body is made of water.
The river courses through magnificent and fragile places. It never meets the sea, 1,450 miles away in Mexico. From the Rocky Mountains, it’s all downhill.
We have endured more than two decades of severe drought. Reservoir levels are historically low.
The distinct white rings on the rocky sides of Lake Mead and Lake Powell magnify the obvious.
There is less water for everything — growing food, generating power, building stuff and living. What happens if century-old New Deal infrastructure, such as Hoover Dam — like an entire system of weirs and canals and generators — ceases to work?
What happens when a river dries up? We may yet see.
The couple balanced on the edge above Horseshoe Bend, a stunning oxbow feature of the Colorado River.
The guy dipped the girl, and they held a long kiss as friends took pictures at a safer distance from the abyss.
The site was a longtime local attraction but became a social media sensation, drawing many who risk real danger to “Do it for the Gram.”
Six people have died at Horseshoe Bend since it gained popularity in 2010. About 12 people a year die at the Grand Canyon.
You can easily get hurt in this environment.
I found out the hard way at the remote Toroweap Overlook while scouting a Kodak spot of the river running vertically into the horizon.
I met two couples sitting under a pinyon tree. One man spoke with an English accent and asked where my wife was — if I had thrown her over the edge. I would if I had one, I said. They laughed.
I was later distracted by flitting birds. I stepped off a short ledge onto loose rock and my right ankle twisted badly. I heard a pop and fell. Pain throbbed from my foot. My camera wasn’t damaged.
I hobbled back to the car, reclined the passenger seat and put my foot up. The light wasn’t good for a few more hours.
At sunset I used a tripod to limp to the edge of the rim. In the gloaming I wished to loiter forever. But I was hurt, and it got very dark very fast.
The few people here earlier had left.
Photographers always leave last. It took a month to heal.
The Navajo women selling crafts and jewelry along U.S. Highway 89 paid little attention to storm clouds looming above.
Over a vast plateau, light mist fell for a minute and stopped. “It doesn’t rain like before,” one woman said. “It doesn’t rain much at all anymore.”
I’m not religious but understand that parts of the Navajo Nation are sacred and enduring.
The reservation covers 17,544,500 acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It has dramatic landscapes like the Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley and Ship Rock. The San Juan River snakes into the Colorado. You can commune with God here, even if you don’t believe.
Uranium mining in the mid-20th century left cancer clusters on the reservation. Tribal members suffer Navajo neurohepatopathy, diabetes and severe combined immunodeficiency. Some 1,619 Navajo have died from COVID-19.
Native Americans are organizing to protect their largely unexploited Colorado River water rights while exploring water-sharing options with areas of greater demand. Created by time and the elements, this place will evolve even if humanity dies.
Along the road near Cameron, Ariz., the Painted Desert Project installed artwork in an abandoned motel.
The two-story structure has murals of Native American people, symbols and scenes. Broken TV sets, old tires and detritus litter the ground. Street artists from the rez and beyond created the contemporary take on Native life.
I walked around the side. Cars zipped by. On a wall, painted in big block letters, a message read: “American Rent Is Due.”
Looking back as I traveled, I recalled some things.
“Earthrise,” a photo by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, inspired me. It put our home at the edge of black, empty space. Millions have celebrated Earth Day worldwide since 1970. My generation learned the atomic half-life of cesium-137. But profit commodified everything, including people and nature.
Fast-forward 50 years and coral reefs are dead. Unstoppable human progress clears rainforests every day.
In 2022, we live in a persistent pandemic. We face dire prospects of environmental collapse and nuclear war.
The Colorado River Delta is almost completely decimated.
Where a wide stream once splintered into sprawling wetlands, the delta now consists of farms in the Mexicali Valley, two sizable cities in the Sonoran Desert, miles of parched riverbed, salty estuaries and struggling fishing villages.
Over the last 30 years, the overused river has mostly ended its 1,450-mile journey far short of its mouth at the Gulf of California.
Nonprofit conservation organizations are restoring patches of the delta. Meantime, in the southern delta, members of the Cucapa fishing cooperative wait in the mudflats for rising tides to lift their boats to sea.
The fisheries are poorer, a leader said. The men tow their boats to the estuaries. From the air, the estuaries look like trees devoid of leaves. The river abruptly dies in the sand.
Luis Sinco spent a year visually documenting the Colorado River from the headwaters in Colorado all the way down to Mexico. The intro was written by Ian James, with aerial photography by Brian van Der Brug. The photographs were edited by Robert St John and Marc Martin, online design by Marc Martin, and copy edited by Anne Dillon.