Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Saturday 30 November 2019

Photo Essay

No agua, no vida

The Colorado River has been divided and diverted, over decades, to serve Southwest America. Now its waters may be drying up

By John Trotter

In 1922, American politicians and industrialists divided up the flow of the Colorado River between seven states and Mexico. They constructed an extensive network of dams, stilling much of the once roiling water and creating the foundation on which the Southwestern United States was built. Nearly forty million people now depend on flows from the Colorado River. Without it, civilisation as we know it in the American Southwest – a world of endlessly sprawling cities, verdant championship golf courses and cheap, abundant produce – would vanish.

And it still might. In early 2008, a report by University of California researchers predicted that Lake Mead – the largest man-made reservoir in the US, set behind the massive, iconic Hoover Dam – has a 50 per cent chance of “dead pool” by 2021. “Dead pool” occurs when the water level drops below the gravity intakes of the dam, after which the remaining water in the reservoir will no longer be available downstream. In other words, virtually no Colorado River water would reach Arizona, California or Mexico.

I spent time photographing in Arizona because I knew that it would be most vulnerable to water shortages. Arizona was not able to start building the Central Arizona Project (CAP) – the canals and other infrastructure that allowed it it to finally make use of its river allotment – until the 1970s; while California had been using more than its portion since the 1940s. The act that authorised the CAP stipulated that Arizona’s water supply would be subordinate to California’s in times of shortage, simply because the “Law of the River” grants senior status to those who appropriated the water first.

During my time there, water users up and down the river were negotiating a Drought Contingency Plan, in which all parties would make cutbacks in order to keep Lake Mead viable, as the Colorado River watershed entered its 19th year of drought. As I photographed around Phoenix, the folly of sprawling 4.5 million people across the desert floor seemed so clear to me – yet very few of residents I spoke to were even aware of the tense negotiations going on around the water that makes existence there possible.

Flying over the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, into Phoenix, Arizona.

Lake Pleasant, northwest of Phoenix, where Colorado River water from the CAP is stored along the canal’s route across the state.

A drinking water refill station in Maricopa, Arizona, south of Phoenix.

At the Hoover Dam on the day the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference ended, where the decline of Lake Mead, which the dam contains, was central to almost every presentation.

Near the Park of the Canals, in Mesa, Arizona, which preserves the remains of three ancient canals constructed by the vanished Hohokam civilisation using only hand tools.

Fresh local oranges, mostly from groves irrigated with Colorado River water brought from over 300km away.

Alfonso Estrada works with his brother in Mesa, Arizona, to fill bins with 450kg of oranges. This grove is now hemmed in by housing developments.

A young onion picker ties rubber bands around bunches of scallions in a Sonoran field on a late autumn afternoon in Mexico’s Colorado River Delta. His working day began in the darkness, at 5am.

Colorado River water in the CAP canal, in north Phoenix, about 300 km from the source at Lake Havasu.

A street, with a bike lane, in a dormant new housing subdivision on the south end of Las Vegas, Nevada. Automatic sprinkler systems are already installed. Las Vegas receives 90 per cent of its water from the Colorado River, drawn from nearby Lake Mead.

The “Water Use It Wisely” tower of one gallon plastic bottles, in the lobby of the Executive Office Building, where Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s office is located. At the time, Ducey was trying to get a Drought Contingency Plan passed in the state legislature.

Built on what was once the land of the Yavapai people, the town of Fountain Hills, built by Robert P. McCullough (who moved the old London Bridge to Lake Havasu), has the world’s fourth tallest fountain.

Harvesting head lettuce outside of Yuma, Arizona, where agriculture, which grows winter vegetables for the entire country, is almost entirely dependent on the Colorado River for irrigation.

Mesquite tree recently planted in a park on the Gila River Indian Community reservation, near Olberg Bridge.

Flying out of sprawling Las Vegas, Nevada. In early 2020, Las Vegas expects to complete construction of a new intake nearer the bottom of Lake Mead which will allow them to continue to receive Colorado River water, even if the lake drops to “dead pool” level.

Resurfacing the public swimming pool in Somerton, Arizona, a farming community by the Colorado River, at the border between the United States and Mexico

Corvina (a type of sea bass) are unloaded from a panga to be gutted and cleaned at a Cucapá fishing camp near the mouth of the Colorado River in the Gulf of Mexico. The Cucapá people have had to battle Mexican government authorities and non-native fishermen to continue to use their traditional fishing grounds for the annual winter harvest, which has been the tribe’s main source of income for each year, because the area is now considered part of the nucleus zone of the Upper Gulf of California National Biosphere Reserve.

Monica Gonzáles, the daughter of the traditional chief of the Cucapá, signs her name to a citation given to her by Mexican government officials – backed by armed marines – preventing her people from fishing for corvina in the nucleus zone of the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve.

Monica Miguel Espinoza, a granddaughter of Cucapá traditional chief Onésimo González, is the centre of attention at her quinceòera (15th birthday) party. Most of the inhabitants of her community, El Mayor, turned out for the big event, held at a fishing camp next to the Rio Hardy, a highly polluted alongside El Mayor, in the Mexican Delta of the Colorado River

A crowd of mostly Navajo people spend the late afternoon of US Independence Day 2004 on a part of Lake Powell previously submerged in water when the reservoir dropped to its lowest level since the lake had been filled in the 1960s.

The Big Surf water park in Tempe, Arizona, with the oldest recreational wave machine in the United States. The city receives Colorado River water from Lake Havasu, over 300km away, via the CAP canal.

A Mexican man picking asparagus in the Imperial Valley near Heber, California.

Decades of dams have prevented the flood cycles for which native plants and trees evolved to survive. Non-native tamarisk plants have out-competed them and taken over the Colorado River corridor, especially in the Delta.

Alberto Ramirez has come with his family to enjoy the Colorado River the day after its flow slowly submerged a road across what had been a dry riverbed the 1990s. For eight unprecedented weeks in 2014, a simulated spring flood of water was released into the river channel from the Morelos Dam at the US-Mexico border, where the vast majority of Mexico’s allotment of the river is diverted into giant canals, mostly for irrigation. This “pulse flow” was an attempt to restore lost habitat.

A dog finds shelter from the blazing afternoon sun under a palo verde tree, just one kilometre from a Colorado River channel which the pulse flow re-animated with water only the day before. The average annual rainfall in the area, at the edge of the Sonoran Desert, is slightly less than five centimetres.

A boy carries water to the beach near the Colorado River headwaters at Grand Lake, Colorado, where he and his playmates are building a dam out of sand.

Harvesting carrots near the Wellton-Mohawk drainage canal in Sonora, Mexico.

Ripping out invasive tamarisk by hand, in the Colorado River Delta. Untold millions of deep-rooted, tough tamarisk bushes drink deeply from the scarce water along the river.

The Colorado River, near its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A pile of dead pine trees, killed by a mountain bark beetle infestation in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Warmer winters, attributed to climate change, have allowed more of the beetles’ eggs and larvae to survive at higher altitudes and have expanded the insect’s reproductive season. And prolonged regional drought has left more trees stressed and vulnerable.

A pickup truck churns up dust from millions of years of Colorado River silt, deposited in the Mexican Delta before the giant dams changed everything.

A worker takes a break at the Laguna Grande habitat restoration site in the Colorado River Delta, in Baja California, Mexico, where invasive tamarisk plants are being ripped up and replaced with native cottonwood, willow and mesquite trees. The project is being run by the Sonoran Institute.

People on a raft trip along the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park stop for a morning break at Red Wall Cavern.


John, a native of Missouri, in the Midwestern United States, worked as a newspaper photojournalist for fourteen years, on stories large and small, local and international.

In 1997, while photographing in Sacramento, California, a gang accosted John, demanding his film. He was summarily beaten, left for dead, bleeding on a sidewalk. For the next two and a half months, he was in rehabilitation. After his attack, he needed to learn how to be a photographer once again. Through this act of fixing images outside his injured brain, he learned to place himself once again in time.

His body of work ‘The Burden of Memory’ has been broadly published, exhibited and praised. John is also working on an ongoing project focused on the massive human alteration of the Colorado River. He is based in Brooklyn, New York.

All photographs by John Trotter/Maps