Song of The River

‘Chasing Water’ tells the tale of the once-mighty Colorado River

Photo by Pete McBride

In a sense, photographer Pete McBride has been preparing to make Chasing Water all his life. Raised on a cattle ranch in the Roaring Fork River Valley, he grew up working hay fields irrigated by the snowmelt that carved the Grand Canyon and slaked the thirst of the Southwest.

“I often used to think about water,” he says in the film. “I wondered how much went into our fields and how much returned to the creek.”

Later, as a photographer for National Geographic, Outside and Men’s Journal, McBride traveled to some of the world’s most exotic locales — often, as it happened, shooting stories that related in some way to water.

His 18-minute documentary, judged the Best Short Mountain Film of the 2011 Banff Film Festival and screening Wednesday at the Boulder Theater, didn’t begin as a film at all.

“This started as a magazine assignment for the now-defunct National Geographic Adventure,” McBride said in November in a conversation at Banff. The original idea was to shoot writer Jonathan Waterman’s paddling trip down the length of the Colorado River, one of the most heavily diverted waterways in the world. “Then I was like, ‘This is too dear to my heart,’ and I thought maybe we could get a book, and then sponsors showed up.”

In fact, two books resulted from the project: Waterman’s Running Dry and the McBride/ Waterman coffee table stunner The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict. While taking aerial footage for the book from the cockpit of his father’s plane, McBride shot some HD video, and the idea for a film took hold. McBride connected with fellow Coloradan and film editor Anson Fogel (also of the Banff triumph Cold, see story here), who convinced him to participate in the film as a narrator.

Shot almost entirely from overhead, Chasing Water, the film, follows the river’s progression as it flows southwest from its mountain headwaters through the Grand Canyon and southern California toward its ignominious end in the Mexican desert, drained by the thirst of 30 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland. The vantage point gives the piece a cerebral aspect: There’s nothing like an aerial view to show the cold logic of dams and canals, and the 100-foot “bathtub rings” around Lake Powell serve as a grim reminder that the water demands of the Southwest far exceed its diminishing supply.

Ultimately, though, Chasing Water is essentially an artistic film because of its remarkable beauty and its shockingly personal impact. When McBride as cameraman deplanes, leaving behind lyrical views of the turquoise river meandering through red sandstone to meet up with the kayak-bound Waterman in what McBride calls “the frappuccino pit” in the Delta, it’s like a kick in the gut. The foaming sludge of agricultural effluent and raw sewage, what is now the graveyard of the Colorado River, used to be a braided network of lagoons where birds nested and shrimp hatched. McBride and Waterman had to walk the last 29 miles to the Sea of Cortez in order to complete their mission of following the river’s old course.

Only the remoteness of the Delta has allowed this to happen, McBride said.

“The river stopped reaching the sea in the ’80s,” McBride explained, “but during the spring runoff it would reach it. Not a drop has reached since the late ’90s, but most people don’t know that. And that’s a big issue, I think. Because if the river ended in San Diego they’d freak out. They’d be like, ‘Where’s our river?’”

Traci Hukill is editor of the Santa Cruz Weekly.