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Deeper Grand Canyon, More Communal Colorado River Revealed in New Online Film

By Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated
Photos by David Herasimtschuk

In the arid Southwest, water is life… and the Colorado River is the artery that feeds communities and agricultural economies throughout the region. Yet, a little-known fact is that many of us who rely on the Colorado River’s water actually live outside of its natural watershed boundaries – those ridges and ranges that define the basin’s drainage area. In fact, cities like Los Angeles, Denver, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City are just a few of the population centers that are outside of the Colorado River’s watershed, but still survive on Colorado River water that is captured and delivered through reservoirs, canals, and aquaducts that have served these and many other communities for decades. It is not only engineering, but also our water laws that permit Colorado River water to be drawn toward centers of wealth and population, rather than to simply flow downhill.

It is in one of these water ‘subsidized’ Western communities, Fort Collins, Colorado, where we met Katie Winkelman, a high school senior, thoughtful member of her community, and a citizen scientist. Katie is one of thousands of lucky students from across the country who have taken part in curiosity-driven rafting expeditions organized by Grand Canyon Youth. Katie’s adventure was filled with all the exploration and excitement that a 10-day river trip can bring, and her voyage brought her to a deeper consciousness of the Colorado River ecosystem that she reflects on in our new film, What You Take Away:

Katie’s experience in the Grand Canyon not only opened her eyes to the life that the river supports, but it also contributed to a scientific study led by the US Geological Survey to better understand the Colorado River food web. One of the revelations that comes from an ecological exploration of any river is how important a river’s insect community is to feeding not only fish and other aquatic creatures within the river, but also to feeding birds, bats, reptiles, and amphibians that inhabit the forests and cliffs around the river. As Katie puts it, “It just made me realize that everything depends on really little things… like tiny little bugs can control the whole fish population of a river.”

Youth citizen scientists collect and identify aquatic insects and other invertebrates from the Colorado River and its tributaries, which indicate how healthy the river’s food web is.
Youth citizen scientists collect and identify aquatic insects and other invertebrates from the Colorado River and its tributaries, which indicate how healthy the river’s food web is.

The efforts of Katie and lots of other citizen scientists helped contribute data to a new study that reveals a fundamental impact that hydropower dam operations have to river ecosystems in the West. Published in the journal, Bioscience, this study demonstrates how the highly variable streamflows that are commonly released from hydropower dams are damaging to some of the most productive habitats of rivers, and to the critical egg-laying habitats for many of those aquatic insect populations. These findings reveal another stress associated with our use of western rivers, and one that may be silently suffocating even our ‘wildest’ river stretches, like the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Dams like the Glen Canyon Dam are not only part of a water storage and delivery system, but also generate hydropower, a practice which is being found to be damaging to downstream insect communities.
Dams like the Glen Canyon Dam are not only part of a water storage and delivery system, but also generate hydropower, a practice which is being found to be damaging to downstream insect communities.

As we gain a greater awareness of what rivers are, we might arrive at the revelation that Katie came to, “When I see a river, I don’t just see water. I see an entire ecosystem.” And as we gain a sense of how these ecosystems have been compromised by our needs, we can only hope to come to a perspective of empowerment, as Katie does herself, “Once you gain that knowledge that whatever water you’re using in your community is water that’s not going into that ecosystem, you become a lot more conscious of how you’re using water.”

The endangered Humpback Chub is one of many species that relies on aquatic insects for food, and may be struggling to find enough to eat in the flow-altered Colorado River
The endangered Humpback Chub is one of many species that relies on aquatic insects for food, and may be struggling to find enough to eat in the flow-altered Colorado River.

Filmmaker Statement

Jeremy Monroe and David Herasimtschuk co-Directed the film, What You Take Away, and are the core filmmaking team of Freshwaters Illustrated. Originally from Colorado’s Front Range, they were both raised on Colorado River water, and feel lucky to be able to share a story that shines light on the beauty and importance of the Colorado River system. What You Take Away was produced in Partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey and in Cooperation with Grand Canyon Youth and Grand Canyon National Park.

Link: Freshwaters Illustrated