Rafting 1000 Miles to Spotlight Colorado River Basin Issues

New Film from the Powell 150 Expedition Coming in 2021

In the spring of 2019, the Powell 150 expedition from the University of Wyoming launched on a 1000-mile rafting expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers. The goal was to follow the 1869 river route of Western explorer John Wesley Powell, while raising awareness of issues affecting the Colorado River Basin during the 21st century.

John Wesley Powell retrace trip - Powell 150 film expedition

“I wanted to have a diverse group of interesting people invested in the West,” said expedition leader, Professor Tom Minckley, about the Powell 150 crew. “Scientists, scholars, conservationists, artists, advocates. No [river] experience was needed. Everyone just needed an interest in being part of the dialogue—thinking, how can we work toward a better future for the region?”

Topics for discussion included decreasing water supplies in the Colorado River Basin, and concerns about equitable distribution among the historic stakeholders and growing population. Another issue was degrading landscapes and shifting designations of public lands, like the controversial 2017 reductions by the Trump administration to Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Starting from Expedition Island, in Green River, Wyoming, the Powell 150 team spent 71 days rowing through some of the Southwest’s most spectacular canyons, including Flaming Gorge, Gates of Lodore, Desolation, Cataract, and Grand Canyon. Along the way, 63 people participated in the expedition. While a core group of seven descended the entire route, most participants joined for one or a few of the nine multi-day river segments.

One core team member was Ben Kraushaar. A filmmaker and graduate student at UW, Ben joined the team for his first major river trip to co-direct a documentary film about Powell 150. In addition to presenting basin issues, Ben’s goal for the film is to bring rafting through these canyons to life using adventure videography techniques that make the viewer feel like they are on the river.

Powell 150 film crew in Grand Canyon

“The river is over allocated,” said Ben. “Climate change is posed to reduce Colorado River Basin flows by 20% by 2050 and basin tribes, who despite being legally entitled to 20% of the basin’s water, are still fighting for an equitable future. We hope this film inspires people to engage in water resource issues and care more about where their water comes from.”

Another expedition participant was Erika Osborne, an artist and professor from Colorado State University. She joined the team in Green River, Utah, rafting through four canyons—Labyrinth, Stillwater, Cataract, and Narrow—before taking out below the Dirty Devil on northern Lake Powell.

“This was my first multi-day [river] trip, and it was amazing,” said Erika, who described the Powell 150 trip as a perfect metaphor for what needs to happen to advance the conversation about basin issues. She’s especially concerned about the recent shrinking of national monuments to allow for energy development, and the overtaxing of the Colorado River by water withdrawals within the basin.

“There’s value in going to the river,” continued Erika. “We are visual and experiential beings. You can feel the heat that’s causing evaporation. You can understand the water that’s being moved through this space.”

One of the challenges of organizing a 1000-mile rafting trip involved coordinating the arrivals and departures of the part-time participants, many of whom made the Grand Canyon segment their first choice.

Powell 150 trip - Amorina Lee-Martinez, a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado

“I had the fortune to float the Grand Canyon,” said Amorina Lee-Martinez, a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado. “The trip leaders put everybody’s name in a hat and picked them in a lottery. I was lucky to get drawn. This was my first time rafting the Grand, so the entire experience feels like a favorite memory for my life.”

Amorina said the most pressing issue facing the Colorado River Basin is the projected gap between water supply and demand. She cites a Colorado River Research Group report which claims climate change will not cause short term droughts but long-term aridification, meaning hotter temperatures will decrease average precipitation.

“While there are future projections of water shortage in the basin, currently there are many indigenous tribes who are [already] experiencing water shortage,” explained Amorina. “Their senior water rights have not been fulfilled due to lack of infrastructure and exclusion from state and federal water decision-making processes. The Powell 150 project helps to highlight how river management actions of the past created the world we live in today.”

“The trip was really a crash course in water issues in the West,” said trip leader Tom Minckley, who believes that a river trip is a great place to have a conversation about water issues. “[John Wesley] Powell cautioned that climate always will change and scarcity of water will be part of the West forever. Powell gave us a systematic way of thinking of resource utilization in the arid West. We tried to mimic that approach.”

“There is something for everyone along Powell’s route,” continued Tom. “Hair-raising adventure, sublime calm. Multi-week trips and day trips. The river is waiting, get out there and check it out.”

The Powell 150 film is scheduled for release during early 2021. The team is currently fundraising on the Powell 150 website to cover post-production costs.

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Photos: Ben Kraushaar