Reviewed by Richard Lord
High School Biology Teacher
When Jon Waterman called the Colorado River "a western plumbing system" photographer/narrator Pete McBride didn’t understand what his friend was talking about. But after walking 90 miles of what he called a “dry river cemetery” it was clear to him what his friend meant. In this powerful video, McBride chronicles his story of the Colorado River, the 1500–mile lifeline to the arid west.
McBride reminisces about growing up on a cattle farm, raising hay for the cattle, and irrigating the farmland with water diverted from streams fed by the melting snow of high mountain peaks. He pondered how much water went into the field and how much returned to the stream and ultimately to the Colorado River. Wondering how long it would take the irrigation water to reach the sea, he and Waterman decided to follow the river. Initially setting out to paddle the entire length of the river, the two separated and McBride flew over the river, documenting its course and how it was being used. He witnessed the changes in the river due to human activity. Noting the “bathtub rings” on rocky cliffs, he could see how much the river had receded.
The video features several human–made systems used to divert water to distant cities. The point is made that we all eat the Colorado River, since every piece of lettuce consumed by Americans in the winter had its origin in crops watered by the river. In the end, McBride realizes that he never really knew the river because it was so different from his childhood memories. Calling it “confined, fractured and fading,” he describes it as “an orphan stretched into a blooming desert, a maze of concrete canals and a symphony of human thirst.” After five months, McBride rejoined Waterman and the two paddled to the end, where the river joins the Sea of Cortez. Near the delta, they found the river had become a thick sludge of garbage, debris, and weeds. Walking on the dry riverbed toward the end, they reflected on the transformation of the delta from an area of abundant wildlife and a lush estuary to a giant garbage disposal. In McBride’s words, “For 6 million years, the Colorado ran to the sea; since 1998 it has not.”
This film is a powerful way to show students how much damage human activity can do to the environment. It is appropriate for middle school, high school, college, and adult audiences. Dramatic photography, unobtrusive background music reflecting the changing moods of the story, and a wonderfully crafted narration communicate the story from the heart of the man who lived it. It is divided into nine short scenes that can be paused for discussion and accommodate a variety of lesson plans and activities. Subtitles are available if a teacher wishes to use them.
The program is appropriate for biology, Earth science, and environmental science classes. A bonus feature, “Crystal Voice,” is a 3–minute video that imagines what the Colorado would say if it could speak. After describing several different points that the river might discuss, the narrator suggests that it would express the wish to run wild and free. Along with the feature video, this clip could be used in an interdisciplinary unit involving language arts, social studies, and the arts.
Review posted on 1/4/2013