Thirty million people have built their lives on the Colorado River. Without it, civilization as we know it in the American Southwest—a world of sprawling cities, championship golf courses and cheap produce—would vanish. The writer Wallace Stegner once called the arid American West our “Geography of Hope.” Its vast skies and towering mountains promise a future of limitless opportunity. But at what cost have we watered this living mythology?
Since 2001, I have been photographing the consequences of the sweeping human alteration of the Colorado River, in the Southwestern United States and extreme Northwestern Mexico. But the Colorado, I soon learned, was greatly reduced from what it once was and no longer makes its ancient rendezvous with the Sea of Cortez, between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland.
Forces north of the border had other destinations planned for the river’s water however, and in 1922 divided its annual flow between seven U.S. states and Mexico. They built an extensive network of dams, stilling much of the once roiling river and creating the foundation on which the Southwestern United States has been built.
But as it has turned out, the foundation of everything, the premise of 1922, was based more on wishful thinking than fact and up to 25% more water has been promised to the river’s users than actually exists.
Huge reservoirs built for storage behind giant dams, shrink steadily, as man withdraws more water each year than nature deposits back into the river. In early 2008, a report by University of California researchers predicted that Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the Western Hemisphere, behind massive, iconic Hoover Dam, has a 50 percent chance of drying out by 2021.
As much as anything else, my project has been an exploration of the disconnection many Americans have with the source of their water, one of the few things in the world without which we will not survive. It is inevitable that our entire nation will pay for this hubris. Only the degree of sacrifice is still somewhat negotiable. I am photographing the people, their civilization and the land teetering obliviously on the brink of collapse.