From the seat of a small jet plane I can place my hand against the window and parts of the Colorado River disappear. This isn’t like any time I’ve flown before. There are no crying babies, peanuts or bathrooms.
I am with a pilot and a couple other college students dipping and turning at 10,000 feet. In four days we will traverse Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. We’ll touch down in each state and speak with different groups about their work and lives as they relate to the Colorado River.
It’s the most disputed water source on planet Earth, and we want to know why.
I’m flying courtesy of Eco Flight, a nonprofit based in Aspen, Colorado. The founder, Bruce Gordan, has flown all around the world. He’s such a good pilot, in fact, that I spotted him reading the newspaper at a casual 9,000 feet above the ground.
He spoke of seeing the landscape change drastically in a short period of time. It inspired him to fly politicians and other decision-makers so they could be better informed on how their policies affect the environment. He said he became discouraged because nothing changed. That’s when he decided to fly students.
From an aerial perspective, the Colorado River looks like veins cursing through the thirsty body of the arid West.
It provides water for 30 million people, and is allocated for agriculture, the energy extraction industry, and domestic use. What’s left provides habitat to rapidly disappearing populations of fish and birds.
After flowing to meet the Gulf for six million years, the Colorado River no longer reaches its delta. It hasn’t since 1998. The veins are drying up, and it’s leaving a strong battle in its wake.
Unfortunately, it’s often the oppressed communities that suffer the most from environmental exploitation. And with native populations, the story is all too common.
“I taste oil in the river by my school,” said Leo, a 14-year-old Navajo boy who spoke to us for hours about his love of running and basketball, his culture, and what it’s like to have a parent work at the coal plant.
We toured the Four Corners coal processing plant. A fellow student asked Nathan, our tour guide and a Navajo, what he thought about the future of coal. “We need to transition to renewables,” he said. And that it was just a matter of time before the plants were shut down.
The plant operates 24 hours a day, sending its electricity to Las Vegas, San Francisco and New Mexico. It uses water to cool the potash (coal waste) that it gets from the San Juan river.
To read more and see the beautiful photographs from the trip, go to the Elephant Journal.
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