“Killing the Colorado,” a joint reporting project by ProPublica and Matter, set out to tell the truth about the American West’s water crisis. As serious as the drought is, the investigation found that mismanagement of that region’s surprisingly ample supply has led to today’s emergency. Among the causes are the planting of the thirstiest crops; arcane and outdated water rights laws; the unchecked urban development in unsustainable desert environments; and the misplaced confidence in human ingenuity to engineer our way out of a crisis — with dams and canals, tunnels and pipelines.
Four photographers — Christaan Felber, Bryan Schutmaat, Jake Stangel and Michael Friberg — were enlisted by photo editors Luise Stauss and Ayanna Quint to document man’s mistakes and their consequences. Friberg, who has lived in the West for the last decade, thought he knew the issues facing the Colorado River. He soon discovered he was wrong.
When I received this assignment to photograph varying aspects of the man-made infrastructure put in place to control every last drop of water coming from the river, I was blown away by the sheer scale of it all. We decided to structure my road trip around three so called “lakes” (reservoirs) that each serve a different function in supplying water and power to the almighty, never-ending expansion of western megacities.
What I encountered along the way was both awe-inspiring and profoundly discouraging. The Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona was created almost for the express purpose of providing the power needed to pump water hundreds of miles, up over mountains, to Phoenix. The Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell, which is not really a lake at all but a massive twisting, turning reservoir with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. The Central Arizona Project is a nondescript-looking canal that flows out of the side of a hill coming from Lake Havasu. It runs at a languid pace for over 300 miles, providing a large percentage of the water that central and southern Arizona cities receive.
When I got to Lake Mead, it looked like a dirty toilet: a huge ring encompassed the entire shoreline. We stumbled upon a marina that was abandoned, old food still rotting in the kitchen, the docks bent upward by the ground they were never supposed to touch.
The hardest thing about photographing this project was that all of this was and is beautiful. Lake Powell looks like a prehistoric sea on the surface of another planet. The dams are all monumental achievements to man’s both genius and hubris. Even the coal plant, an easy target for photographers, ripe with clichés, was beautiful in its own way.
How can you show these things without romanticizing them? Trying to figure out how to show the scale of all of these projects without making saccharine images of dams and lakes was the biggest challenge.
Throughout, I was constantly reminded of my own complicity. I live in a big city in the West and while I might not get my water from the Colorado, I sure as hell get it from some other man-made reservoir. When I turn on the lights in my house, I’m sure it’s from a coal-fired plant I’d rather not think about.
The only thing that gives me hope is that if we could figure all of this out 60 or 70 years ago, hopefully we can do it again.