Peter McBride ~ photographing the most endangered river in America

Peter McBride ~ photographing the most endangered river in America


Adventure photographers and filmmakers give us a unique view of the world. And throughout his long career taking pictures and telling stories for major magazines Peter McBride has offered up an exciting perspective, most often from the air. When he was in his 20s he flew a World War I biplane called the Vickers Vimy from London to Cape Town to reenact the first time an airplane traveled across Africa in 1920.
“I think that really gave me an interest in the aerial perspective,” he said in an interview with the Joy Trip Project. “I was able to sell it to National Geographic with some good luck and that led me into a decade of doing work for Geographic and other magazines.”
Through his camera McBride has shown us images of the planet most of us can only dream of. Having chosen a profession suited to his nature he admits that his work fulfills a selfish desire.
“I guess I became a photographer more because I had an interest in seeing the world to be honest,” he said. “I love photography, but I love adventures. I love exploring and I love going into the unknown.”
20130418-152519.jpgMcBride’s work in photography provides us with an eye-opening look at the planet. He gives his viewers and readers the opportunity to see the place they call home in a different way. From the high mountains of the Himalaya to the jungles of the Amazon McBride has made it possible for to people to see how they and others interact with their environment and to observe their role in the natural order of things. But it’s in his most recent body of work that McBride turns his lens back toward the place where HE grew up. Flying high above the Rocky Mountains to Sea of Cortez he has been following the course of the great North American river, The Colorado.
In a series of photo essays and feature films McBride now tells the story of the river that provides food and water for more than 10 percent of the U.S. population. The hardest working river in the world Colorado has flowed for more than 6 million years. But in the span of just a few decades its precious resources have been tapped to the breaking point.
20130418-152446.jpgReturning to his home in Colorado Peter McBride is raising awareness for the importance of conserving water in the west. Through his films and still photographs he illustrates the plight of the Colorado and demonstrates the impact of over development and the abuse of our most precious natural resource.
So I think it’s fair to suggest that you have been involved in different types of photo capturing all over the world, specifically what is it that made you come back to the United States and put so much effort into telling the story of the Colorado River?

I think I came home…I still travel a lot for work today, but I came home in part because I was a little burned out to be honest. I was telling someone just last night that I wanted to try to do something that had a little more impact than just a magazine article that somebody reads going to the bathroom or something. You know…And that’s not entirely fair. Magazine stories can chance things for sure, but I guess I just wanted to sink my teeth into something that was bigger, maybe bigger than me. And I didn’t have a really huge master plan. It sort of evolved on its…as it happened and it still is. But I came home and wanted to do something just around home and not travel a bunch. I was traveling all the time and so I had to hunker down and I came back to the valley where I grew up. My father’s a pilot and I started looking at doing some aerial work. And that led into the Colorado River project that technically took me two years. But I’ms till doing tributaries. I’m still doing rafting and I’m still talking about it. It’s an issue that’s definitely not going away and it’s going getting more and more severe.
What can you tell me about what you discovered in your travels taking pictures of the Colorado River literally from its source to what had been its course to the sea?
Well the most alarming thing to me was just to see how developed that river is. I went into this project as a Colorado native who’s used Colorado river water my entire life. I grew up on a cattle ranch. We basically have a small heard that we do out of…we don’t even make any money, we just do it to keep open space. But we use water. I grew up swimming, fishing and boating in the river and I didn’t know much about the river downstream. What amazed me was to see the infrastructure around it is remarkable on my levels. Lake Powell I knew as a boy but Hover Dam is beyond my comprehension, the enormity of that colossal structure. And then downstream to see the Central Arizona project that take water 336 miles across the Sonoran Desert to Phoenix and Tucson, to see another Colorado aqueduct go to Los Angeles 220 miles across the desert. And the network of dams below it, the Parker Dam, Davis Dam, Morelos Dam, it’s pretty remarkable to amount of engineering. And this below that to see that river actually dry up and I could just never envision that, that could be the case. There have been some mistakes that led to this, human error in judgement on how much the river actually has on an average flow and there’s been some over allocation and over consumption. And we’ve had a little bit of a water habit in certain areas to say the least.
There were some honest mistakes. You can entirely blame people. They didn’t have the information they have now. But now we have this wildcard of climate change where everybody is saying projects are heading toward a drier Colorado River basin. We’re going to lose 5 to 10 percent they’re saying. But the biggest alarm for me was seeing that infrastructure and then below it seeing what I read this amazing estuary, the largest estuary in North America denuded to nothing, it’s just cracked earth and desert and a frothy frapachino pit as I call it at the end is where the river petered out into this muck a hundred miles shy of the sea of Cortez. And then to learn that the river for 6 million years ran to the Sea of Cortez and there hasn’t been a drop of it, not a single drop has reached the sea since 1998.
I think what I find fascinating in this is that you describe in your narrative of your film, the Colorado River is the hardest working river. And based on what you just described it sounds to me like we had already tapped it’s resources to a pretty high degree. You mentioned adding the wildcard of climate change. It’s it at that point where human interaction has really put a big strain on the Colorado River? And if that is indeed the case, what can we do to fix that?
I think climate change is starting to play out because we’re in the second decade of drought basically. So we’re starting to feel that effect a little bit. We’re not getting the replenished flows that we once had. It’s true. The river is…it stopped reaching the sea in 80s, but a spring flow would occasionally reach the sea, but now it’s completely dry. It never kisses the sea. And on top of that, what’s making it more alarming and more urgent is the river stores four times of its annual flow in these reservoirs, mainly Lake Powell and Lake Mead. We’ve drawn those down to less than 50 percent. So we’ve taken half our bank account away already. And now everyone’s realizing, uh-oh…those bank accounts went away pretty quickly. So now everything is starting to become more prominent.
So what can we do? Well that’s the million dollar question really. Awareness in my opinion is one. Most people have no idea this is going on. They’re totally oblivious. And then on the more practical side, we’re going to have to figure out things like cost, pay structure. Water should be free or as cheap as we can make it so everyone needs it. But we pay less…we pay more for our cell phones now, which nobody had 10 years ago really. We pay more for our cable than we do water. And it’s not water, it’s the infrastructure that gets the water to us and that’s getting more and more expensive. So we need to figure out ways to do that. We need to have more tiered structures, the less you use the cheaper it is. The more you use the more expensive etc…There’s plenty of those programs out there. We need to figure out some smart agriculture. What’s the best agriculture? Should we grow cotton in the Colorado River basin? Maybe not. We need to figure out ways to regulate that, that’s smart. I believe in supporting agriculture, but we want smart agriculture. We want smart development. We also want golf courses which makes about as much sense and are regulated as much as Ag. And we should have cities and towns that are in closed loop systems, where there’s more recycling, basically it’s the same water that dinosaurs drank. It’s dinosaur pee basically. Why should be using 2 and a half gallons to flush our waste. Maybe there are better ways out there. That would be some starts. The big giant gorilla in the room is population in the Southwest and obviously the planet. But have we hit our carrying capacity is the question I like to raise.
So if we have not yet reached our carrying capacity moving forward into the future is there perhaps a sense of optimism that can come from your work? I think it’s pretty tragic that Colorado River ends 90 miles and more from the Sea of Cortez after having for millions of years flown all the way to sea. What can we look forward to? Where is there a sense of optimism perhaps in this story?
That’s a great question. I think there’s a lot actually James. For example when I started I didn’t know squat about the river, to be honest. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been surprised a lot. I’ve also been impressed by the number of people who have listened and learned through my limited voice. And also there are a lot of other organizations with bigger voices doing great work. I’ve had kids come up to me and said Hey I convinced my mom to tear out our front yard. we don’t have grass any more. People are waking up and there’s a greater awareness. My local radio station has daily morning reports on the river flows. I never heard that when I was a kid. And it talks about how the rivers have dropped or if they’ve come up and everyone’s into it. So that’s a start. There’s a recent treaty signed with the U.S. and Mexican government which is very progressive, very new. They’re going to bring some water back to the Deltas call minute 319. That brings some hope for the river to connect potentially. I don’t think it’s enough water personally but it’s a great start. Everyone talks about the law of river and Colorado compact and how we can’t change it. The reality is we’re massaging it and adding elements to it continually and there’s been some positive agreements recently. I think there’s great hope.We’re just going to have to start doing things pretty quickly.

The Colorado River —The Most Endangered River in America 2013 from Peter McBride on Vimeo.
You can learn more about Peter McBride and his work in conservation and adventure photography on-line. Visit 

Music this week from Jake Shimabukuro


This edition the Joy Trip Project was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Conservation Alliance and the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.


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