A view From the Bridge

The Colorado: elegy for an overused river

Posted on behalf of Monya Baker

The Colorado River

Tidal waters in the delta region of the Colorado River.

Murat Eyuboglu

The Colorado River in the US West proves the adage that you never step into the same river twice. Lined by a vast array of landscapes, communities and industries it has shaped, its waters run variously aqua, navy blue, muddy brown — or not at all. Over its 2,334 kilometres, it sustains some 40 million people, 2 million hectares of farmland and the Hoover Dam. It is also polluted, depleted, diverted.

Now this mighty waterway is celebrated in The Colorado — a music-based documentary that delivers a powerful environmental and social message. Produced by VisionIntoArt, the project brings together several composers including Paola Prestini and live performance ensemble Roomful of Teeth, among others. (See below for the trailer.)

Glenn Kotche and Jeffrey Zeigler performing at the New York premiere of The Colorado.

Glenn Kotche and Jeffrey Zeigler performing at the New York premiere of The Colorado.

Jill Steinberg

At a pre-show talk on 22 April at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, the project’s director Murat Eyuboglu noted that his inspiration was the story of the Salton Sea in California’s Colorado Desert. This huge inland lake was created by accident in 1905, when engineers’ plans for irrigation canals succumbed to the river’s might. Now saltier than the Pacific Ocean, the lake is filled with toxic sludge and hosts acres of deserted lakeshore development, yet is essential habitat for migrating seabirds. “I’ve never seen so much beauty and devastation cohabiting in one place,” said Eyuboglu. That sentiment holds for the film as well.

Eyuboglu’s interest in the Salton Sea led him to contact writer William deBuys, who has chronicled the natural histories of water in the region in books such as Salt Dreams (coauthored with Joan Myers). DeBuys signed on to advise Eyugoblu on the project, then became his co-scriptwriter and lyricist. Filmed over four years (and 20 trips into the river’s drainage basin), their documentary meanders from the artificially fertile fields of Imperial Valley to the artificially parched expanses in the Sonoran Desert as well as the Salton Sea.

Geologist John Wesley Powell, the first to explore the Colorado River for scientific purposes.

Geologist John Wesley Powell, the first to explore the Colorado River for scientific purposes.

The work is divided into nine sections. Each begins with a narrative introduction by actor Mark Rylance, grounded in stories of people who explored, exploited or were exploited by water-fueled power. After the narration stops, we are steeped in stunning cinematography and archival footage.

The first to explore the Colorado for scientific purposes was noted geologist and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell. (During that conflict Powell, who lost an arm in combat, would instruct his soldiers to watch out for fossils while digging trenches.) On his first, grueling three-month 1869 expedition, Powell recognized that the river had cut through millennia, pronouncing the region “a Book of Revelations in the rock-leaved Bible of geology” that he was determined to read. Mapping the basin, Powell made a coherent case that political units should follow the same boundaries, to balance the needs of those dwelling upstream and downstream at a time when land speculators carved property for their own benefit. That lost opportunity is repeatedly apparent in the film.

Another story is that of David Brower (1912-2000). Founder of environmental organisations including Friends of the Earth and first head of the Sierra Club, Brower successfully fought to stop a dam slated to flood the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah. He proposed Glen Canyon as an alternative, despite never having seen it. After mapping Glen Canyon, he realised that burying its magnificent rock “cathedrals in the desert” and thousands of ancient indigenous sites under what is now Powell Lake would go down as the biggest US environmental mistake in history — and admitted his part in it. We see footage of the canyon being dynamited pre-dam, run backwards. Witnessing the canyon walls reform, we feel what has been lost.

In other sections, we see the tons of produce grown in Imperial Valley, irrigated by the river and harvested mainly by farm labourers from Latin America. Finally, we glimpse the nearly bone-dry delta of the Colorado in Mexico. With farms and industries each due a cut of “liquid property”, the water generally fails to reach the sea despite governmental efforts. The delta’s former fecundity is now relegated to the memories of octogenarians.

The Colorado is, for the most part, emotionally and intellectually rich — sometimes too much so. At one point, I missed a series of explanatory texts on screen because I was pondering the source of the sound accompanying them — it was, I eventually realized, the cellist striking his bow alternately on the instrument’s base and a plastic water bottle. Birdsong at the start of one segment is the call of the canyon wren, whose characteristic trill inspires a vocal piece later on. But I would not have recognized either fact without the pre-show talk.

The river is disappearing under the constant demands of civilization, yet is beautiful even in decline. The film closes with a Yuman poem, once description, now wish. “This is my water, my water… It shall flow forever.”

Monya Baker writes and edits for Nature from San Francisco, California. She tweets at Monya_science. The Colorado will travel to Washington DC in March 2018, as part of the Kennedy Center’s inaugural season of Direct Current, a celebration of contemporary culture. View a trailer for The Colorado here. A Nature Q&A with Paola Prestini can be found here.

 

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.

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