A run on a rotten river

Grand Junction brothers Tom (left) and Sam Morrison are headed to Mexico — to kayak a polluted river and film a documentary in an effort to raise awareness. Photo Special to the Sentinel.

Photos Special to the Sentinel—At the confluence of the Rio Santiago and the Rio Verde, the Santiago,  the river on the right, has white chemical foam floating on top. Sam Morrison lives nearby in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he teaches sixth-grade science.

A side tributary on the Santiago, filled with foamy pollution.

Some of Sam Morrison’s students raise funds for the project in Guadalajara, Mexico. Much of the nearly $9,300 raised came from donors in Mexico, “which is really cool because that’s the target audience,” Morrison said.



Tom Morrison will be giving a presentation on his upcoming Rio Grande de Santiago River trip, and other river trips he just did in Mexico, on April 16 in the ballroom at Colorado Mesa University’s University Center. It starts at 7:30 p.m. and admission is free.

Local river-runners know full well the rush that comes with running big, foaming rapids.

For two brothers and Grand Junction natives planning a river adventure this summer in Mexico, a lot of the foam will be coming from a far less appealing source — pollution.

“This is going to be disgusting,” Tom and Sam Morrison say at their http://www.indiegogo.com fundraising website, describing their planned source-to-sea, nearly 300-mile trip on the Rio Grande de Santiago in western-central Mexico in August.

They’re not aware of anyone else ever having undertaken that journey, thanks to the river being so badly polluted, Tom Morrison said in an interview.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The river also runs through beautiful terrain, including deep, secluded canyons, and supposedly offers some Class 4 rapids, Morrison said. And according to locals, just 40 or 50 years ago, “they could fish and swim in the river. Now it’s so polluted they can’t fish, they can’t even use their water for agriculture anymore,” he said.

It’s that rapid degradation of the river that the Morrisons hope to help reverse by bringing attention to the plight of the Santiago and the people living along it. The two plan to travel with professional videographer John McKinley and make a documentary of their river travels, and show it in film festivals in the United States and Mexico.

While that documentary necessarily will have to spend significant time on the river’s problems, the Morrisons ultimately hope to spread an upbeat message about what the river can be if it gets some help.

“We really want to focus our video on the beauty and the positive aspects of the river … and the potential it has for tourism and the potential it has as a natural treasure in Mexico,” Morrison said.

River roots

The Morrison brothers, the sons of Stan and Ann Morrison, have a longtime love of river-running, having spent their childhood playing on the Colorado River. Sam, 28, has put together a lot of expeditions, and Tom, 23, has worked as a river guide in Idaho.

Sam earned an environmental science degree from what at the time was Mesa State University, and then returned there to get a teaching degree.

“He did a lot of international traveling and he just knew when he graduated that he wanted to basically live abroad for a few years and teach,” Tom Morrison said.

For the last three years, Sam has lived in Guadalajara, where he’s teaching sixth-grade science. He works near the Santiago, and eventually he became aware of its problems and the idea of floating its length to publicize its plight germinated in his mind.

Sam has done a lot of other river-running in Mexico, including some first descents. Tom said his brother has done a fair amount of scouting and hiking around the Santiago, and marveled at its beauty while being revolted by its condition.

“He started to smell it and realized there’s a reason nobody goes in it. … You get within 30 feet of the river and you just can’t even stand the smell of it,” Morrison said.

The pollution is so bad the brothers plan to take respirators and oxygen tanks with them, just in case, as well as water to clean themselves with should they fall in the river.

The Santiago and its tributary, the Rio Lerma, are among Mexico’s most polluted rivers, the brothers say. That’s thanks to dumping of undertreated wastewater into the water, and pollution from pulp and paper mills, petrochemical and chemical plants and other industrial operations, along with fertilizers and chemicals from agricultural operations in the watershed.

“Basically it’s just a lot of unregulated dumping into the river, where if it was regulated by the government it would make a huge difference,” Tom Morrison said.

Tom, 23, is finishing up a physics degree at CMU this spring as he gets ready for the brothers’ trip. Five people altogether plan to float on two rafts, with resupply and other support coming from a shuttle driver.

Locals’ support

The group topped its $9,295 fundraising goal for the trip, thanks to more than 100 contributions. Morrison said that, thanks in part due to stories on the upcoming trip in Mexican newspapers, a big part of the contributions came from donors there, “which is really cool because that’s the target audience that we’re trying to reach.”

The adventurers plan to interview locals they meet along the way as part of putting together the documentary. Morrison said a lot of local Mexicans are pretty excited to hear about the upcoming trip, and like to talk about how the river used to be.

“… We’ve already had a pretty good response from locals. We’ve had a lot of people complimenting us, saying that’s a really good idea,” he said.

But he added that a lot also think the river-goers are crazy for exposing themselves to a river too dirty to swim in.

“Our main concerns are definitely the pollution and getting sick,” Morrison conceded.

He said he’s not worried about getting splashed in the boats, but prolonged contact if he ends up in the water is another matter, not to mention inadvertent ingestion of water if that occurs.

The river-goers will be carrying all their drinking water with them rather than trying to treat and drink the river water.

Another concern is that parts of the river could be choked by plant eutrophication. An invasive species, water hyacinth, has flourished on the river due to high nitrogen levels and could impede passage at times.

Despite crime problems in parts of Mexico, much of it drug-related, Morrison said the brothers haven’t had any problems on other trips in the country and aren’t worried about that. One challenge they may face is getting around several dams along the river. They’re working on getting government approval in advance, but still could run into problems with local authorities, he said.

“Lot of unknowns”

If all goes perfectly — which the Morrisons aren’t expecting — the trip could take about a month, Tom Morrison said. More likely, it will last about 10 or 15 days more.

“There’s a lot of unknowns. We know a little bit about certain sections of the river. There’s a lot of things that we don’t know, which should be interesting.”

“… We definitely have a lot against us, but we believe that we can make a difference, and a lot of locals that my brother’s talked to think that also, and that if Mexicans were to put pressure on the government changes could happen.”

Morrison said people responsible for the pollution don’t see the results for locals living downstream.

“That’s our main goal is just bringing awareness and basically giving a voice to the people that live there and have to live with the consequences.”


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