Adventure and Tragic Love: An Interview with Jon Waterman
Published on 12/09/2011
By Mallory Ayres
Jonathan Waterman's passion for adventure is only matched by his love for the wilderness. Like a modern day Edward Abbey, he has a deep connection to the West, and can't tolerate those who would destroy it. In June 2008 he set off on a mission to run the Colorado River from its source high in the Rocky Mountains to the sea. His journey was propelled by a piece of knowledge that appalled him - because of overuse and climate change, the mighty Colorado no longer reaches open water and dries up in the Colorado River Delta. His goal was to discover what's left of this essential resource that provides life giving moisture to the entire western United States, and what we can do to help save it.
In his award-winning account of the trip, Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River Waterman writes a new kind of adventure story where he deepens his personal experience with carefully researched scientific and historical information about the Colorado River. He describes his full immersion into the battle over the river and the many people and institutions twisted into it. Yet this book is also a tragic love story, because as we understand the depth of Waterman's passion for the river environment, we also realize his sorrow to see her sick, polluted and fading.
Running Dry pulls you from pounding over white water, narrowly missing jagged bared wire, to observing ruins left by a gentle river people who lived a stiller lifestyle, to understanding the muddled politics behind water law today. This is a multi-dimensional story, with a call to action to fervent to ignore. We had a chance to talk with Waterman about his trip including close calls on the river, run-ins with landowners, and his ferocity toward the laws and institutions preventing the Colorado from reaching the sea.
Q: Have you always loved nature? What inspired you to make a career out of it?
A: When I was a teenager I grew up in Lexington Mass., and it was not a town that was surrounded by wilderness by any stretch of the imagination. It was a claustrophobic, manicured suburb and I spent a lot of time in the woods near my house. There was an oil company there that had discharged a lot of oil into the wetlands surrounding the area. That was certainly inspiration for me, but also I felt like I needed more room to move and to breathe. I felt confined in New England because of the lack of wilderness and the topography. There's something about the West that I find very gratifying; liberating, you know? Out here you can see the sun rise and set and feel the freedom of many open and roadless spaces. I was also a fan of Edward Abbey's and that was very helpful to make me understand diminishing wild lands and the value of places like the Colorado River.
Q: A huge amount of research went in to Running Dry because of the historical and scientific elements. What was your process for doing that research?
A: I'd make notes in my journal that told me to look things up and fill in more history or geology or water law of a place, which obviously you can only do after you've been there because you have to start the question. It's not unusual for travelwriters to do this kind of first person narrative - I came, I saw and I learned- but I really immerse myself in this journey. I get into trouble, I take a lot of risks, and I feel that that immersion aspect not only inspires learning, it builds respect and humility, and that humility is really important for understanding a sense of the place. That's what separates me from 99% of travel writers out there.
Q: How did you fall in love with the Colorado River? What prompted you to work on conserving it?
A: Well the first time I saw the Colorado was in 1978 and that planted a seed, but at that point in my life I was more interested in the Far North. In 1993 I paddled the entire Sea of Cortez and I started the trip essentially at the Delta, and that's when the Colorado River still ran to the sea. That trip in 1993 left a huge hole in me because I wanted to see the river not only where it ended, but I wanted to get to know the whole thing. When I heard the river stopped running a dozen or so years ago, I knew that I would have to go back. Also, I've been taking these far-flung journeys everywhere but my backyard, and I felt it was time to focus on something closer to home. I have young kids and they're going to inherit whatever we do with this resource and it seemed crystal clear to me that it was time to focus on what was going on here at home.
Q: You wrote that you need time "gallivanting downstream" to assess your values. What is it about being on the river that makes you think about your way of life?
A: Well for one thing, when you're sleeping on the ground you get back to the basics. You take pleasure in the simple things like carrying your own food and then cooking it. You feel really happy instead of feeling like you're suffering being out in the wilderness. [It] solidifies all the things that I've built over the years in terms of my value system and beliefs. Politics as well: you go on these trips and you tend to be with people, for the most part, who are similarly politically aligned.
Q: You ran into a lot of problems with ranchers and landowners as you traveled the river. What laws do boaters have to be aware of? What rights do boaters have to the water?
A: Basically you don't even have to touch the banks of a river to be considered trespassing in many parts of the Colorado, Gunnison, Arkansas, or Taylor Rivers today. I mention them because these are rivers where there have been arrests or trespassing fines levied against boaters. These people are not even necessarily camping or stopping on the banks. Boaters need to know that you can be arrested for boating down a beautiful, otherwise navigable stream anywhere in Colorado. In retrospect I wish that I had been a little bit more belligerent and insisted that the sheriff take me to jail [when a rancher stopped me on the river]. I could have gotten a good lawyer and a lot of media attention and really brought this thing to court, because this law needs to be changed.
Q: What does all the development and manipulation of the river mean for rafters? What will it mean 15 years in the future?
A: In terms of drought and climate change the future is very clear and it's only a matter of time. Whether it's 15 years or 30 years from now, many of these places that we boat today are likely to become very boney [dried-up] places. The future is very grim, frankly. It's not just because of climate change, it's also because of population. Places like Denver continue to expand and they have rights to more and more water. Already they've taken enough water out of the Fraser River [a Colorado River tributary] that there are no longer any fly hatches. We have not made any appropriations for the environment, i.e. the river itself. We've been taking all we want for human kind and not leaving anything for nature, and that will not bode well for future recreation, let alone the many species that depend upon the river being left intact.
Q: What are some of the sections of the river that are in the worst condition? What areas do we need to address first?
A: The Delta, the Delta, the Delta. We have pretty much stopped the most iconic river in the West from flowing to the sea and it's been that way for 15 years. My feelings are basically that I am outraged. This is a crime against nature. If this river ended in San Diego there is no way that we would have allowed it to stop running to the sea. It's because it runs into Mexico that we sort of look the other way. People are inclined to say, "Well, it's Mexico's problem." But it's not; the U.S. uses 90% of the river. That's an atrocity...I think that the fact that this river doesn't run to the sea is absolutely outrageous.
Q: You said: "To elaborate on the choice quote, a Bureau of Reclamation* official told me he didn't ‘give a shit about a bunch of birds' (360 species to be exact) that live on the Delta, one of the many reasons why, he felt, that sending river water south of the border didn't matter." Why is this statement so disturbing?
A: You know, what's really disturbing is that he knew that I was doing the project for the National Geographic and he knew that I was taking notes, and he flagrantly told me that! That's why I think that Reclamation is so inept is because the people that work for them can so misrepresent what this bureaucracy should be doing.
*The Bureau of Reclamation is a governmental institution whose mission is to assist in meeting the increasing water demands of the West while protecting the environment and the public's investment in structures like dams, power plants and canals.
Q: Do you think this attitude goes past this individual case to other parts of the Bureau? Does it extend to our government in general?
A: The answer is yes. In my naiveté when I started taking this trip I didn't know that there are so called "water buffaloes" who control water and who don't want people to know that not only does the river not reach the sea, but the Gila River [a tributary of the Colorado River] is also dried up for instance. These buffaloes are charged with bringing water not only to the public, but also to the farmlands. They sell it to [them]. It's a big business, and it's tightly held. When an environmentalist comes along and talks about the value of nature and its diminishing resources it's at odds with delivering this commodity to the public. There are a lot of people that need an attitude change. The problem is just that they've got the law on their side because of the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation: if you're putting water to what is referred to by the law as "beneficial use" then you have the right to it. There is no law that says, "The river shall run to the sea."
Q: I know the river is suffering in many ways, but what did you see that still gives you hope?
A: Well, there are a lot of wonderful things going on and I'm glad you asked that question. On the one hand you can look at one viewscape and you can see the river clearly declining, but in the same viewscape there are scores of places that link to the river where there are restoration projects that have not only gotten rid of invasive species like the tamarisk, [a tree native to Asia], but they've replenished native species such as the willow and the cottonwood and brought water to restore the wetlands. There are people all through the length of the river who are dedicated to preserving it, and that spirit of volunteerism is one of the things that gives me hope.
Q: You ran into a lot of dangerous conditions on the river. What was the moment in your journey that you felt the most unsafe?
A: In the headwaters there are these barbed wire fences that were really unnerving. If you've spent any time in white water you know that obstructions are the thing that's going to kill you the fastest. That's one of the things that really had me on edge the first couple of weeks. When I was in Arizona I was also a little bit on edge. There had been a couple that had tried to run the river all the way from Wyoming to the Confluence, and they planned to go all the way to Mexico, and somewhere along the way they had been shot at. Even through I didn't have any confrontations I was really uneasy a lot of time in Arizona because there are a lot of weapon-toting rednecks there.
Q: How did you become such an expert boater?
A: Well I'm not what you would call an expert boater, I knew just about enough to not get myself killed. I walked around Byers Canyon for instance, and there were a couple of other rapids that I walked around too. There were also a lot of rapids that I didn't walk around that maybe I should have. So was it mainly luck? I don't think so, but luck always plays a little part. Plus, I'd be dead now if I'd gotten away with so many long journeys on luck alone. I remember the bridge in Rifle, Colorado where the river makes a sharp breaking turn and that was one of the scariest parts of the river as far as I'm concerned, because there was a completely unnatural object forcing the river right. I pulled as hard as I could and barely missed the thing, which would have trapped me. It's the places where there are unnatural rapids and obstructions can really hurt you.
Q: What were some key pieces of gear that you used on the river?
A: You don't realize how important a kayak paddle is until you loose it. That was one of my cardinal sins, traveling without a spare paddle the first couple hundred miles. Sunglasses are also a hugely important piece of equipment in the desert with water reflecting so much light. I use SunCloud Polarized "Atlas" Black Sunglasses, essential when you're looking at a map because they've got reading glasses built in. Sunscreen was very important because I was under the bright sun every day. I use Elemental Herb's sun stick, which is really nice because without it it's a pain in the neck to rub sun lotion in. You can just pull the sunstick out and put it on your nose and your cheeks. Sandals are hugely important too because I ended up doing a lot of walking, so Chaco Sandals were my footwear of choice.
If you would like to learn more about Jonathan Waterman's trip down the Colorado River visit: http://jonathanwaterman.com.