Author travels Colorado River’s length to chronicle its challenges

Adventurer, conservationist, author, Jonathan Waterman. Photo by Pete McBride.

From the treacherous slopes of Denali to the frigid waters of the Arctic Sea, Jonathan Waterman has found all kinds of challenging places to tackle as an author and adventurer over the decades.

But from a political and environmental perspective, few places may face challenges as daunting as those of the Colorado River watershed, the topic of his 10th book.

In National Geographic Books’ newly released “Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” Waterman uses paddle and pen to trace this fabled waterway from its headwaters at the Continental Divide in Colorado to its terminus in the Gulf of California. Or, at least that would be where the river ends its journey if not for the fact it regularly runs out of water before getting that far.

Waterman saw the river’s fate firsthand, having floated it for 800 miles in 2008 until its last trickle dissipated in delta mud. He thinks he’s the first to have traveled its entire length from snow line. But the former Denali climbing guide and veteran of other journeys such as a 2,200-mile crossing of the Arctic wasn’t on this latest outing so much for accomplishment and adventure.

“The idea is more to make a point that I set out to learn this river from stem to stern in order that I understand its various issues more than be first. I’ve gotten beyond that point in my life,” Waterman said.

Now focused on being a father, he was happy to play it safe and just go along for the ride as veteran river guides got him through the biggest rapids. Many of the other navigation challenges he faced weren’t natural but man-made, as he dodged barbed wire fences across segments high in Colorado, and struggled to walk his small boat around dams built with no designated means of bypass by river travelers.

The river’s bigger challenges are man-made as well. Chiefly, they stem from the fact that states have overallocated the water contained within the drainage, thanks to overestimation of the watershed’s water production, evaporation from reservoirs and consumption for agricultural and municipal uses.

Waterman explores the challenges presented in trying to meet the 1922 Colorado River Compact and other legal obligations for allocation of the river’s water. He also details the problems of increasing river water salinity, which results from its use for irrigation, as well as how building dams has endangered native fish, trapped silt in reservoirs and moderated the heavy spring flows that were once an integral part of the river ecosystem.

Waterman said he recognizes Lake Powell’s importance to Upper Basin states meeting their downstream river water delivery obligations. But he also believes trying to corner nature is exacting a price.

Waterman is teaming up with National Geographic, Patagonia, New Belgium Brewing and other entities in launching the Save the Colorado campaign, which will donate money to efforts to promote water conservation and protect the river. More information is at

Waterman is passionate in wanting to see the Colorado treated with the respect he believes a river deserves. In his book he weaves in a narrative about coming to terms with the death of his own mother, even as he contemplates a river that is corralled and eventually cut short of its destination.

Although we have losses in our lives, “rivers aren’t supposed to disappear,” Waterman said.

“They’re supposed to run to the sea. They’re supposed to last forever.”


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