The Colorado River: Where the west quenches its thirst

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA - MAY 16, 2022. The Grand Canyon as seen from Hopi Point on the canyon's south rim at dusk. The Grand Canyon is one of many ompeting users of Colorado River water in the face of generally decreasing flows. The amount of water in the canyon has significant effects on the 277-mile-long ecosystem. Six million visitors come to the canyon every year. Water demand on the commercialized south rim for visitor accomodations and services is estimated to be about 500,000 gallons a day. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains, collecting snowmelt as it meanders through an alpine valley. Across a vast swath of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, the river grows as it takes in major tributaries: the Gunnison, the Dolores, the Green and others.

The Colorado River Basin encompasses more than 246,000 square miles in seven U.S. states and northern Mexico. On its 1,450-mile journey, the river scours the Grand Canyon and flows into the country’s two largest reservoirs.

The heavy use of the Colorado River has made the Southwest the region it is today, with sprawling suburbs, swimming pools, golf courses and lush farms in the desert.

Water diverted from the river flows from taps in Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas and throughout much of Southern California, supplying nearly 40 million people.

But with the Colorado River now in a worsening shortage, the Southwest is starting to grapple with difficult questions about how to respond — and how to adapt to a drier future.

To document the Colorado’s central role in life in the Southwest, Los Angeles Times photojournalist Luis Sinco traveled throughout the watershed and captured images that reveal how this river — grand and majestic, yet fragile — is under growing strains and is being pushed beyond its limits. Here is what he saw through his lens.

Introduction by Ian James

HEADWATERS | CANYONLANDS | LAKE POWELL | GRAND CANYON | LAS VEGAS | NEEDLES | LAKE HAVASU | PHOENIX | IMPERIAL VALLEY | YUMA | MEXICO

HEADWATERS

Rifle Falls sets a wintry scene near the community of Rifle, Colo.
Rifle Falls sets a wintry scene near the community of Rifle, Colo., at the headwaters of the Colorado River, which flows from here towards the vast area of desert called the Colorado Plateau. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It’s February and the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains are buried in snow. Far below, in the meadow at the bottom of my frame, stands a line of charred trees. In 2020, the East Troublesome fire burned more than 193,000 acres and raged around Grand Lake, Colo., and into Rocky Mountain National Park.

In a time of climate change, all our majestic spaces are threatened by wildfire, which recently burned portions of Sequoia, Yosemite and the Kaibab. Large swaths of the Alaskan tundra burned as temperatures soared to records above 90 degrees when I visited there in 2018. Sometimes, while covering ever bigger infernos every year, I think the whole world is on fire.

I followed a route from Denver into the Rockies and then through Vail and Grand Junction. The area includes one large city, one of the most exclusive ski resort areas in the world, the congressional district of ultraconservative Republican Rep. Lauren Bobert and the farms and railyards where the Colorado meets the Gunnison.

Creeks cut below the icy surface snow to feed the river, which gains speed and volume as it slopes into the Great Basin. I photographed snow clumped on dried vegetation along the bank, and I pictured it someday coming out of my bathroom faucet in L.A.

Fish and game are plentiful, the steep and rocky terrain forested, the water fresh and clean. The skiing and snowmobiling are great and there’s lots of room. Heavy snowfall intermittently collects on roads and slows the drive. It’s totally OK. It’s like heaven on Earth, though some locals insist it’s becoming Californicated, whatever that means.

Denver has appeal. It has major sports and culture and ranks nineteenth among the most populous American cities. People mostly have relatively healthy lifestyles. The mile-high metropolis has about 3 million people and is expected to grow by more than 500,000 by 2030. Home prices, homelessness and crime are rising. New communities of more affordable housing sprout on the high plains east of the city.

Just about every place around the Colorado River is growing. About 40 million people rely on the river. Agriculture requires water to grow food. Nature needs water from the river to maintain the river’s ecological balance. Water sustains civilization. Half of the human body is made of water.

The river courses through magnificent and fragile places. It never meets the sea, 1,450 miles away in Mexico. From the Rocky Mountains, it’s all downhill.

A motorist drives on Highway 24 in the snow-covered landscape near Granby, Colo.
A motorist drives on Highway 24 in the snow-covered landscape near Granby, Colo. Research indicates that the Rocky Mountains' snowpack has declined by an average of 41% in the last 30 years. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Fishermen cast their lines into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, where the Roaring Fork River meets the Colorado.
Fishermen cast their lines into the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, where the Roaring Fork River meets the Colorado. The state is a fisherman's paradise, with streams like the Colorado River rich in brown and rainbow trout. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Skiers catch a gondola in Vail Village at the foot of Vail Mountain, the largest ski resort area in Colorado.
Skiers catch a gondola in Vail Village at the foot of Vail Mountain, the largest ski resort area in Colorado. The town of Vail has a population of about 5,000 and its economy relies heavily on tourism. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A ranch home and barn are surrounded by fields of snow near Granby.
A ranch home and barn are surrounded by fields of snow near Granby. Agricultural growers use the lion's share of available water sources in Colorado. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Snow covers an expansive lawn at City Park in Denver, a city of about 715,000.
Snow covers an expansive lawn at City Park in Denver, a city of about 715,000 that draws about 50% of its drinking water from tributaries of the Colorado River west of the Continental Divide. Denver is the first of several major cities that lie along the Colorado River's course. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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CANYONLANDS

Locals watch the sunset from atop a bluff in St. George, Utah, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation.
Locals watch the sunset from atop a bluff in St. George, Utah, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation. Newcomers are drawn to the mild climate, moderate home prices, low crime and access to a nearby water source. The area grew about 30% in the last decade. The Virgin River flows through the city and is a major tributary to the Colorado River. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Beyond the windshield, the Colorado River streamed from the Rocky Mountains through the vast and arid Desert Southwest before ending, depleted, in Mexico.

Few rivers in the Western U.S. pass through harsher environments or serve such demanding and competing interests.

The river is drying up.

The desert is more arid because of hotter and drier conditions from climate change.

Experts doubt the Colorado will yield ample amounts of water in the future. You might deny science, but trust your experience.

The muddy waters of the Colorado River course around Canyonlands National Park as seen from Dead Horse Point near Moab
The muddy waters of the Colorado River course around Canyonlands National Park as seen from Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah. Ancestral Puebloans historically inhabited the area, which is rich in fauna, including black bears, mountain lions and a variety of hawks. The park includes about 62 acres of the last undisturbed natural grassland in the West. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A Mormon temple stands in the middle of St. George, Utah,
A Mormon temple stands in the middle of St. George, Utah, one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. The city's population has blossomed from 7,000 in 1970 to about 100,000 today. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The Hite Crossing Bridge spans the Colorado River in southern Utah near its confluence with the Dirty Devil River.
The Hite Crossing Bridge spans the Colorado River in southern Utah near its confluence with the Dirty Devil River. The surrounding area typifies the vast and arid ecosystem of the Colorado Plateau, through which the river flows. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A signs welcomes visitors to Moab, the gateway to activities in the Canyonlands and Arches national parks.
A sign welcomes visitors to Moab, the gateway to natural recreation sites and activities in the Canyonlands and Arches national parks. Moab also has a toxic waste site just outside town made up of tailings from local uranium mining and processing. A massive cleanup seeks to recover ammonia, uranium and other contaminants from surface water prior to discharge into the Colorado River. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A water droplet forms on a tree branch after a brief rainstorm at Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah.
A water droplet forms on a tree branch after a brief rainstorm at Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. The Green and Colorado rivers join near the point and form two large canyons within the Colorado Plateau. From here the Colorado River flows into the vast reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A motorist drives through Monument Valley, on the Utah-Arizona state line near the Four Corners area.
A motorist drives through Monument Valley, on the Utah-Arizona state line near the Four Corners area. Located within the Navajo Nation, the valley is held sacred by Native Americans. The Colorado and San Juan rivers join nearby. The valley only receives a small amount of snowfall annually. In the mid-20th century, its southern part was mined for uranium, vanadium and copper. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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LAKE POWELL

Boats float on Lake Powell, a vast reservoir of Colorado River water situated near the Utah-Arizona border.
White surfaces along the banks show previous water levels in Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the U.S. The lake in Utah and Arizona is popular with boaters and annually attracts more than 2 million visitors. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

We have endured more than two decades of severe drought. Reservoir levels are historically low.

The distinct white rings on the rocky sides of Lake Mead and Lake Powell magnify the obvious.

There is less water for everything — growing food, generating power, building stuff and living. What happens if century-old New Deal infrastructure, like the Hoover Dam — like an entire system of weirs and canals and generators — ceases to work?

What happens when a river dries up? We may yet see.

Water flows down the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Ariz.
Water flows down the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Ariz. White surfaces along the banks of the river and lake show previous water levels in the second largest reservoir in the U.S. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Boats at the Wahweap Marina are pushed toward the center of Lake Powell as the water continues to dramatically recede.
Boats at the Wahweap Marina are pushed toward the center of Lake Powell as the water continues to dramatically recede. Because of lower water levels caused by less snowpack and rain, tourism also declined in 2021. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Lake Powell has been vastly reduced by relentless drought for more than a decade.
Lake Powell has been vastly reduced by relentless drought for more than a decade. In 2022 the lake was at 3,522.24 feet above sea level with a capacity of about 22%. This is its lowest level since it was filled 59 years ago. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Grand Canyon

A visitor takes pictures at dusk from an overlook above Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River near Page.
A visitor takes pictures at dusk from an overlook above Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River near Page. Once a little-known landmark, the popularity of Horseshoe Bend has exploded with social media and now attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. The bend was formed by the river about 6 million years ago. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The couple balanced on the edge above Horseshoe Bend, a stunning oxbow feature of the Colorado River.

The guy dipped the girl, and they held a long kiss as friends took pictures at a safer distance from the abyss.

The site was a longtime local attraction but became a social media sensation, drawing many who risk real danger to “Do it for the Gram.”

Six people have died at Horseshoe Bend since it gained popularity in 2010. About 12 people a year die at the Grand Canyon.

You can easily get hurt in this environment.

I found out the hard way at the remote Toroweap Overlook while scouting a Kodak spot of the river running vertically into the horizon.

I met two couples sitting under a pinon tree. One man spoke with an English accent and asked where my wife was — if I had thrown her over the edge. I would if I had one, I said. They laughed.

I was later distracted by flitting birds. I stepped off a short ledge onto loose rock and my right ankle twisted badly. I heard a pop and fell. Pain throbbed from my foot. My camera wasn’t damaged.

I hobbled back to the car, reclined the passenger seat and put my foot up. The light wasn’t good for a few more hours.

At sunset I used a tripod to limp to the edge of the rim. In the gloaming I wished to loiter forever. But I was hurt, and it got very dark very fast.

The few people here earlier had left.

Photographers always leave last. It took a month to heal.

Whitewater river rafters on the Colorado River as seen from Toroweap Overlook on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
Whitewater river rafters are dwarfed on the Colorado River as seen from Toroweap Overlook on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The overlook is situated in a remote location, and the north rim typically receives only about 10% of the 6 million visitors who trek to the natural wonder every year. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The Colorado River snakes through the rocky confines of the Grand Canyon below Cape Royal on the north rim.
The Colorado River snakes through the rocky confines of the Grand Canyon below Cape Royal on the north rim. Most visitors access the canyon from the south rim, where water demand from tourism is rising. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Storm clouds appear threatening but produce little rain as a Native American woman sells handmade jewelry near Page, Ariz.
Storm clouds appear threatening but produce little rain as a Native American woman sells handmade jewelry from a stand along Highway 89 near Page, Ariz. Page and the surrounding area form the western edge of the expansive Navajo Nation. The territory covers 17,544,500 acres and is home to about 174,000 people. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The Navajo women selling crafts and jewelry along U.S. Highway 89 paid little attention to storm clouds looming above.

Over a vast plateau, light mist fell for a minute and stopped. “It doesn’t rain like before,” one woman said. “It doesn’t rain much at all anymore.”

I’m not religious but understand that parts of the Navajo Nation are sacred and enduring.

The reservation covers 17,544,500 acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It has dramatic landscapes like the Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley and Ship Rock. The San Juan River snakes into the Colorado. You can commune with God here, even if you don’t believe.

Uranium mining in the mid-20th century left cancer clusters on the reservation. Tribe members suffer Navajo neurohepatopathy, diabetes and severe combined immunodeficiency. Some 1,619 Navajo have died from COVID-19.

Native Americans are organizing to protect their largely unexploited Colorado River water rights while exploring water-sharing options with areas of greater demand. Created by time and the elements, this place will evolve even if humanity dies.

Along the road near Cameron, Ariz., the Painted Desert Project installed artwork in an abandoned motel.

The two-story structure has murals of Native American people, symbols and scenes. Broken TV sets, old tires and detritus litter the ground. Street artists from the rez and beyond created the contemporary take on native life.

I walked around the side. Cars going fast zipped by. On a wall, painted in big block letters, a message read: “American Rent Is Due.”

Whitewater river rafting operators set up at Lee's Ferry before taking another batch of visitors into the Grand Canyon.
Whitewater river rafting operators set up at Lee's Ferry before taking another batch of visitors into the Grand Canyon. The narrow stretch of the Colorado River was a crossing for early explorers, and marks the divide between the river's upper and lower basins. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A bird flies over a charred tree stump in the Kaibab National Forest in northern Arizona.
A bird flies over a charred tree stump in the Kaibab National Forest in northern Arizona. Like many other parts of the desert Southwest, the Kaibab has fallen victim to an ever warmer and drier climate. In 2020, the Magnum fire burned through, scorching about 71,450 acres. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The Painted Desert Project, an art installation in an abandoned motel along Highway 89
The Painted Desert Project, an art installation in an abandoned motel along Highway 89, features work by Native American artists from the Navajo Nation. The Navajo people have claims to water from the upper basin of the Colorado River. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Visitors climb rock formations near the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry.
Visitors climb rock formations near the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry. Marble Canyon marks the western edge of the Navajo Nation. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Traffic streams at night through Williams, Ariz., the gateway to the Grand Canyon.
Traffic streams at night through Williams, Ariz., the gateway to the Grand Canyon. Water for the travel industry makes up a substantial part of local demand. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Las Vegas

Visitors take in the free water show at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Visitors take in the free water show at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The water in the fountain reportedly comes from a groundwater source that was once used to irrigate another resort. Lake Bellagio contains about 22 million gallons of water and is one of the most photographed places in the world. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Las Vegas creates an illusion of bounty in the searing desert.

It gets 90% of its water from the Colorado.

The greater metropolitan area has 2.2 million people, and development steadily chews across the arid land.

“We are conserving,” one resident said. “But how many visitors to Las Vegas take short showers?”

A musician plays guitar on a dock in a lagoon at the entrance to the Venetian Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
A musician plays guitar on a dock in a lagoon at the entrance to the Venetian Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Man-made water attractions give the city the illusion of being a desert oasis. It gets about 90% of its water from Lake Mead, a vast reservoir of the Colorado River. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Women in showgirl costumes walk down the Las Vegas Strip, one of the biggest entertainment centers in the world.
Women in showgirl costumes walk down the Las Vegas Strip, one of the biggest entertainment centers in the world, attracting more than 32 million visitors a year. Between 1990 and 2000, the population grew by 85%, and the city remains one of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The lights of the Las Vegas Strip glow at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road.
The lights of the Las Vegas Strip glow at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road. Las Vegas has a population of about 641,903, and each household uses about 222 gallons of water per day. Lake Mead's water level is 162 feet below the level in 2000, the last time it was considered full. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Las Vegas, NV - January 24: Aerial views of suburban community of Mountains Edge Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 in Las Vegas, NV.
Aerial views of the suburban community of Mountains Edge in Las Vegas. Average annual rainfall in the city is 4.2 inches. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Boaters navigate Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States
Boaters navigate Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, created by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the channel of the Colorado River. The white surfaces on the lake's rocky banks show how low water levels have dropped. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Tree stumps jut from dry ground in the ghost town of St. Thomas, in the bed of Lake Mead.
Tree stumps jut from dry ground in the ghost town of St. Thomas, in the bed of Lake Mead. St. Thomas was submerged in the 1930s with the construction of the Hoover Dam. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Storm clouds float across the sky but leave little rain as teens while away time on Lake Mead.
Storm clouds float across the sky but leave little rain as teens while away time on Lake Mead. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A vintage Cadillac sits by the road at a tourist attraction near the Hoover Dam.
A vintage Cadillac sits by the road at a tourist attraction near the Hoover Dam. Lake Mead is at its lowest point in history. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The Hoover Dam stands in front of Lake Mead, where white surfaces on the lake's rocky edges show how low water levels are.
The Hoover Dam stands in front of Lake Mead, where white surfaces on the lake's rocky edges show how low water levels have dropped. With little snowmelt or rain flowing into the lake, the historic dam's hydroelectric-generating machinery could become obsolete. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Housing clings to the foothills near the shore of Lake Mead in Boulder City.
Housing clings to the foothills near the shore of Lake Mead in Boulder City. Originally planned as a community to house workers building the Hoover Dam, Boulder City is the tenth fastest growing city in Nevada. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A plane taking off from the Las Vegas airport arcs over luxury homes in Boulder City.
A plane taking off from the Las Vegas airport arcs over luxury homes in Boulder City. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Needles

Boaters cross the Arizona-California border on the Colorado River near Needles.
Boaters cross the Arizona-California border on the Colorado River near Needles. The town gets its name from the Needles, a group of pinnacles on the Arizona side of the river. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Looking back as I traveled, I recalled some things.

“Earthrise,” a photo by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, inspired me. It put our home at the edge of black, empty space. Millions have celebrated Earth Day worldwide since 1970. My generation learned the atomic half-life of cesium-137. But profit commodified everything, including people and nature.

Fast-forward 50 years and coral reefs are dead. Unstoppable human progress clears rainforests every day.

In 2022, we live in a persistent pandemic. We face dire prospects of environmental collapse and nuclear war.

It feels so bitterly ironic.

A motel sign stands along Route 66 in Seligman, Ariz.
A motel sign stands along Route 66 in Seligman, Ariz. After WWII, countless people got their first glimpse of the Colorado River while traveling west from Seligman on the historic road. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A vintage tractor is parked along Route 66 in Seligman.
A vintage tractor is parked along Route 66 in Seligman. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A child collects water, plants and small fish in a jar at Pirate Cove Resort and Marina near Needles, Calif.
A child collects water, plants and small fish in a jar at Pirate Cove Resort and Marina near Needles, Calif. Situated along the Colorado River, Needles gets its water from natural aquifers. Due to contamination, the city is pumping water from its last clean well, which supplies about 5,000 residents. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Boaters cruise down a channel in the Pirate Cove Resort and Marina near Needles.
Boaters cruise down a channel in the Pirate Cove Resort and Marina near Needles. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Fishermen cast their lines into the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nev.
Fishermen cast their lines into the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nev., a casino town with a population of about 9,000. Laughlin has about nine hotel/casinos and mainly attracts gamblers and recreational vehicle enthusiasts. It is a sleepy town that some call "the place Las Vegas went to die." (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Lake Havasu

A replica of the Harbor Head Lighthouse in New Brunswick stands at the edge of Lake Havasu.
A replica of the Harbor Head Lighthouse in New Brunswick stands at the edge of Lake Havasu. Situated along a channel in the lake, the lighthouse is one of many replicas that ring the reservoir of Colorado River water created by the Parker Dam. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and boats and people pack Lake Havasu.

Guys in tank tops and cargo shorts call out to women in pasties.

Adults are swimming. Babies and children are swimming. Dogs are swimming.

Just about everyone has a beer in the heat. A group of partyers releases green dye into the water.

A parade of powerful boats rumbles by. Spots of gasoline float on the lake.

Maybe this is why, downstream in Southern California, tap water tastes funny to me.

Holiday weekend visitors park their boats along the shore in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.,
Holiday weekend visitors park their boats along the shore in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and release packets of green dye into the water. The lake covers about 19,300 acres and serves as water storage for population centers in Arizona and California. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
An aerial view of London Bridge in Lake Havasu City.
An aerial view of London Bridge in Lake Havasu City. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Swimmers take a dip in Lake Havasu during a holiday weekend. About a million people visit the lake each year.
Swimmers take a dip in Lake Havasu during a holiday weekend. About a million people visit the lake each year. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Boaters raise a drink and cruise around Lake Havasu.
Boaters raise a drink and cruise around Lake Havasu. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Lake Havasu City stretches from the banks of Lake Havasu to nearby foothills.
Lake Havasu City stretches from the banks of Lake Havasu to nearby foothills. The city has a population of about 57,000. In 2001, voters overwhelmingly approved a $463-million bond issue to build a citywide sewer system to prevent groundwater contamination and leaching into the Colorado River. Now, as the population has grown, the city is working on its third sewage treatment plant. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Boaters navigate a channel in Lake Havasu.
Boaters navigate a channel in Lake Havasu. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Phoenix

A visitor walks around Dobbins Lookout above Phoenix, now the fifth largest city in the U.S.
A visitor walks around Dobbins Lookout above Phoenix, now the fifth largest city in the U.S. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

While driving, I wondered if a piece of the ice shelf would break off because of my assignment.

I was documenting climate change on the Colorado River, which runs about 1,450 miles.

I drove its entire length and produced a lot of carbon emissions.

An aerial view of tee boxes on a golf course at an Anthem development in Florence, Ariz.
An aerial view of tee boxes on a golf course at an Anthem development in Florence, Ariz. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Homes, some with backyard swimming pools, where the suburbs meet the desert in Buckeye, Ariz.
Homes, some with backyard swimming pools, where the suburbs meet the desert in Buckeye, Ariz. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Kayakers navigate Tempe Town Lake, an artificial body of water that contains Colorado River water.
Kayakers navigate Tempe Town Lake, an artificial body of water that contains Colorado River water conveyed through the Central Arizona Project Aqueduct and a popular place for recreation. It holds about 977 million gallons of water and loses about 1.7 million gallons a day to evaporation. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Visitors to Dobbins Lookout view the lights of Phoenix.
Visitors to Dobbins Lookout view the lights of Phoenix. The Central Arizona Project Aqueduct delivers about 456 billion gallons of Colorado River water to Phoenix and other parts of central Arizona. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Boaters navigate Tempe Town Lake in Tempe, Ariz. Growth in the greater Phoenix area is fast outpacing the supply of water.
Boaters navigate Tempe Town Lake in Tempe, Ariz. Growth in the greater Phoenix area is fast outpacing the supply of water. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Imperial Valley

A visitor takes a selfie beside public art in Bombay Beach, a tiny community on the Salton Sea in California.
A visitor takes a selfie beside public art in Bombay Beach, a tiny community on the Salton Sea in California. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

California’s Salton Sea is what happens when water gets cut off.

Formed when a broken canal streamed water into a low-lying basin, the shallow sea formerly covered 343 square miles and was fed by agricultural runoff in the Imperial Valley.

It long ago attracted Hollywood types to shoreline resorts, but its history mainly consists of ecological trauma.

The sea recedes as farmers cut back, and the water gets saltier. Summer algae blooms have caused massive fish die-offs. Abandoned neighborhoods line marinas where boats once moored.

Smells of briny decay linger.

The sea could dry up completely one day, leaving a large, parched bed that desert winds will whip into clouds of toxic dust.

Heat waves on the road rise like shimmering water. I imagine an oasis beyond.

But driving farther I realize it is just a mirage.

An aerial view of what's left of the Desert Shores community on the Salton Sea.
An aerial view of what's left of the Desert Shores community on the Salton Sea. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Boat docks are abandoned on the beach in Desert Shores, a community on the Salton Sea.
Boat docks are abandoned on the beach in Desert Shores, a community on the Salton Sea. Large sections of Desert Shores have been abandoned and razed as the sea continues to shrink and leaves waterfront property high and dry. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
An abandoned building stands on the site of a former waterfront community on the western side of the Salton Sea.
An abandoned building stands on the site of a former waterfront community on the western side of the Salton Sea. Desert Shores is a hot and dry place, with summer temperatures often topping 100 degrees. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A sign atop the De Anza Hotel describes a typical day in the border town of Calexico
A sign atop the De Anza Hotel describes a typical day in the border town of Calexico, where agriculture is irrigated with water from the Colorado River. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The All-American Canal in Calexico is where suburbia meets agriculture.
The All-American Canal in Calexico is where suburbia meets agriculture. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Farm machinery cuts alfalfa near the All-American Canal in Calexico.
Farm machinery cuts alfalfa near the All-American Canal in Calexico. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
The All-American Canal slices through the Imperial Sand Dunes in Winterhaven, Calif.
The All-American Canal slices through the Imperial Sand Dunes in Winterhaven, Calif. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

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Yuma

Visitors to Gateway Park in Yuma sit under the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge, which spans the Colorado River
Visitors to Gateway Park in Yuma sit under the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge, which spans the Colorado River near the U.S.-Mexico border. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Yuma, Ariz., is one of many cities in the Southwest that have grown exponentially.

In 1970, its population was 29,007. Today, it is about 100,000.

Some 80,000 "snowbirds" make their winter home in Yuma, where the climate is largely warm and sunny.

The town is surrounded by farm fields devoted mainly to winter lettuce.

More than half of Yuma's residents get their water from the Colorado River.

A youth wades in the Colorado River under Interstate 8 in Yuma.
A youth wades in the Colorado River under Interstate 8 in Yuma. Best known as a historic Wild West outpost, Yuma now hosts about 80,000 "snowbirds" who spend winters here. The town bills itself as "the sunniest place on Earth." (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A wild burro walks along the banks of the Imperial Reservoir near Yuma, where desalting and water diversion take place.
A wild burro walks along the banks of the Imperial Reservoir near Yuma, where desalting and water diversion take place. Local ranchers frequently complain about the burros, which many consider invasive and harmful to the environment. In 2020, the Bureau of Land Management proposed to remove from the Yuma Proving Grounds 35 wild burros and 40 wild horses that were considered a "nuisance." (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Campers find a secluded spot on the shore of Lake Martinez
Campers find a secluded spot framed by the desert landscape on the shore of Lake Martinez, a recreational and residential area above the Imperial Dam in Yuma. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Colorado River water churns through the Imperial Dam near Yuma.
Colorado River water churns through the Imperial Dam near Yuma. The dam stores water in the Imperial Reservoir, where it is desilted and then diverted into two canals. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Traffic streams down U.S. Highway 95 in Yuma, a crossroads between Phoenix, San Diego and Mexico.
Traffic streams down U.S. Highway 95 in Yuma, a crossroads between Phoenix, San Diego and Mexico. In Yuma, water from the Colorado River is diverted to Arizona and the farmlands of California's Imperial Valley. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Mexico

Tentacles formed by the ebb and flow of tides etch a pattern into mud in the Colorado River Delta in Ejido Indiviso.
The ebb and flow of tides etches a pattern into mud in the Colorado River Delta in Baja California (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The Colorado River Delta is almost completely decimated

Where a wide stream once splintered into sprawling wetlands, the delta now consists of farms in the Mexicali Valley, two sizable cities in the Sonoran Desert, miles of parched riverbed, salty estuaries and struggling fishing villages.

Sadly, over the last 30 years, the overused river has mostly ended its 1,450-mile journey far short of its mouth at the Sea of Cortez.

Nonprofit conservation organizations are restoring patches of the delta. Meantime, in the southern delta, members of the Cucapá fishing cooperative wait in the mudflats for rising tides to lift their boats to sea.

The fisheries are poorer, a leader said. The men tow their boats to the estuaries. From the air, the estuaries look like trees devoid of leaves. The river abruptly dies in the sand.

The delta will likely never be as it was.

Haitian migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border at the Morelos Dam in Los Algodones, Mexico.
Haitian migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border at the Morelos Dam in Los Algodones, Mexico. Many migrants from around the globe attempt the illegal border crossing at the dam. It sits mainly on the Mexican side of the border and is maintained by the Mexican government. The dam diverts Mexico's share of Colorado River water allotments to fertile farmlands in the adjacent Mexicali Valley. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The ebb and flow of tides etches a pattern into mud in the Colorado River Delta in Baja California.
The ebb and flow of tides etches a pattern into mud in the Colorado River Delta in Baja California. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
A vermilion flycatcher perches on a tree in a reforestation project area in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico
A vermilion flycatcher perches on a tree in a reforestation project area in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, which the Mexican government recognizes as a distinct desert biosphere in need of restoration after years of reduced river water flows. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Fishermen wait for the tide to rise and lift their boat out of the muddy flats on the southern end of the Colorado River
Fishermen wait for the tide to rise and lift their boat out of the muddy flats on the southern end of the Colorado River Delta to the Sea of Cortez. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Dead brush pops out of a dry salt marsh on the southern end of the Colorado River Delta.
Dead brush pops out of a dry salt marsh on the southern end of the Colorado River Delta. An updated legal agreement states that Mexico's Colorado River allotment will be reduced under drought conditions. The law officially allots 17 million acre-feet a year to Mexico, but normal flows have often been about 30% of that amount. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Hilda Hurtado Valenzuela leads a Cucapá tribal fishing cooperative in the village of El Indiviso.
Hilda Hurtado Valenzuela leads a Cucapá tribal fishing cooperative that has a handful of members in the Colorado River Delta village of El Indiviso. She remembers a vastly different environment decades ago when plants and animals were more plentiful and diverse. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
The Colorado River Delta in Baja California.
The Colorado River Delta in Baja California. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
Water drips from a faucet in the fishing village of El Indiviso in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.
Water drips from a faucet in the fishing village of El Indiviso in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. The village gets its drinking water from local aquifers. The river dries up completely near the village. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
A salt marsh reflects the setting sun in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.
A salt marsh reflects the setting sun in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. After years of severe drought conditions, not enough Colorado River water reaches the delta to push the flow out to sea. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.