The Colorado River wasn’t really on my mind as I was scrolling through TikTok the other night looking for cat videos, gem videos, and interesting smoothie recipes to try. The TikTok algorithm had other plans, however. To the surprise of Vanessa Keating, her video highlighting the decline of the Colorado River went viral.
Her video was taken at Lake Powell, which is the second-largest man-made lake in the USA. As I was scrolling, Vanessa’s video showed up in my feed, the For Your Page (FYP), and what stopped me was the music and Vanessa saying, “I want to show you something.”
The video moved to a shot of Bullfrog Basin, which is located in Utah.
As the music played, Vanessa narrated.
“I’m at Bullfrog right now and this is the ferry — it was the ferry. This is where the ferry used to come in. As you can see, this boat ramp doesn’t reach the lake anymore.”
The water, she pointed out, was at 23% capacity, and if it falls another 50 feet, the dams will hit the dry turbine. This would cause major power outages throughout the Southwest.
“Seven years ago, I rented a kayak from that place and I kayaked down one of those canyons. As you can see, you can’t do that anymore.”
I reached out to Vanessa, who shared photos of the river with me. She was camping with her dog when we spoke on the phone. This trip will be a short one compared to the long journey she is about to begin in August.
Vanessa, a single woman, will hike the entire length of the Colorado River with her dog to raise awareness about the decline of the river. It no longer meets the ocean. Like me, she’s from a water-rich state. She’s from Florida, and the concept of drought is foreign to her. She’d moved to Colorado eight years ago. There, she had to take measures to preserve water such as not flushing if #1 was all that was done.
The measures made her realize pretty quickly what a drought was, and she realized that this was something important — it had to be shared. The world needed to know. She’d seen where the Colorado River starts. The Colorado River is 1,450 miles long and spans seven US states and two Mexican states. It flows through Lake Mead, turns south, and after it enters Mexico, it used to flow into the Pacific Ocean. Used to.
Hiking The Colorado River To Highlight Its Decline
Vanessa knew that the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon, and she began to study the river. She described Lake Powell as a massive and beautiful lake.
“And I saw the Grand Canyon and it was this amazing thing and I was so humbled and then you get down to Yuma, which is where she basically crosses into Mexico, and you can walk across it without getting your knees wet.”
This made Vanessa question what was happening. And as she continued to study and observe, she began to fall in love with the river.
“I’m going to walk this! Everybody’s kayaking and that’s cool but nobody’s ever walked this by themselves. I’m going to do this. And when I saw Yuma, it went from being something that I wanted to do to being something for the river to bring attention. This doesn’t meet the ocean anymore. It stops about 60 miles shy. Something’s going on.”
Vanessa plans to hike the length of the Colorado River with her dog in hopes of raising awareness about the crisis happening. The river, from which 40 million Americans drink, is drying up. A love for the river transformed into a realization that the very thing she loved is dying.
Vanessa will begin her journey at La Poudre Pass Lake, where the Colorado River begins, and hike all the way to the Sea of Cortez.
“When I first started this hike plan, I was going to stick to the floodplain and stay as close to the river as I could safely be, but then my dog came into the picture four years ago.”
The plan changed from leaving him at her sister’s house while she took the journey. Her dog had been with her 24/7 and she didn’t want him to get separation anxiety. I understand that — my cats freaked out when I went to Atlanta for 9 days last month. Pets are not allowed to go beyond the canyon rim in the Grand Canyon, so it will be safer for her, she added.
“We’re staying as close as we can safely.”
The hike will take around eight months, Vanessa told me. She should finish it around April 2023.
What People Aren’t Talking About Enough
I asked Vanessa to tell me what she saw that people aren’t talking about enough. Awareness is key to solving any problem and people don’t realize the gravity of the situation.
“The shutdowns. The docks that are sticking out a hundred feet above the water line. There’s this place called Hite in Utah and it used to be this boat ramp. I hiked from Bullfrog to Hite last year in April and the river was at 33% and the water was, I believe, a quarter-mile away from the edge of the boat dock.
“And then I went there recently and they’ve actually closed down that visitors center completely because of the low water levels and now she’s sitting at 26%. So, it’s dropped 7% in a year.
“It’s heartbreaking. There’s this creek that I hiked alongside last year. My dog and I got water from this creek. There were pools in this creek that I was able to fully submerge myself in. I didn’t feel really bad about taking water because it was a really good rushing creek. At the same time the next year , I wouldn’t have been able to scoop up a full handful of water. That’s how dry this creek was.”
Why The Colorado River Is Declining
Humans. It’s us. We’re the cause — that and the warming of the planet, which is also caused by humans. The Colorado River is the drinking water for 40 million Americans.
“It’s 40 million people is the problem. When the water was divided into water rights, they used static numbers. Hypothetically, these are totally wrong numbers, but Utah gets 200 million water acres per year. And that’s a static number. You get that every single year for your people. Instead of by percentages. And when they did this division, they totally overestimated the amount of water in the lakes or the reservoirs that they built and they did it during an extremely wet year.
“Now we’re in a millennium drought. This drought’s been 22 years long. So, we’re not getting the snowpack, we’re not getting monsoon season — it hasn’t even begun out here and it’s supposed to have. It’s like if you have a margarita with one straw in it and the bartender pouring it at a steady rate, you’ll still have a full margarita. But if you add 500 people to that one margarita, then you’re going to deplete it.”
By 2025, ⅔ of the World Will Be in a Water Crisis
Vanessa told me about a sign in the Halls Crossing area of the Colorado River. She explained that there’s a ferry there that hasn’t run since 2020 because the ferry has been unable to dock. The sign read, “By 2025 ⅔ of the world will be in a water crisis.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund, “By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages. When waters run dry, people can’t get enough to drink, wash, or feed crops, and economic decline may occur. In addition, inadequate sanitation — a problem for 2.4 billion people — can lead to deadly diarrheal diseases, including cholera and typhoid fever, and other water-borne illnesses.”
The United Nations also has a similar, dire message: “By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions.”
When organizations such as the UN or the WWF speak about water crises, the average American automatically thinks about third-world countries or places far away. They don’t think about the Colorado River or the Mississippi River. Here in Louisiana, we are also in a drought. Yet Baton Rouge is still haunted by the 2016 flood.
How in the world can we be in a drought when we had a major flooding event a mere 6 years ago? In Shreveport and Bossier City, the Red River flooded in 2015. Fortunately, the rains we’ve just had lifted those places out of the drought a few days ago, but here in Baton Rouge, severe drought conditions continue.
We Americans need to stop thinking about climate change and disasters as “far away” and take them seriously. They are not that far away. The best way to do this is to promote awareness, and this is what Vanessa is doing by hiking the entire length of the Colorado River with her dog later this year.
“We are using water at a rate where it feels like it’s an unlimited resource. But the fact of the matter is that we’re not getting as much rain as we used to. Because of the warming of the earth. And we’re not getting the snowpack and it’s being displaced into the ocean.”
One solution that will have to become more common is desalination of the ocean. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently brought it up in response to a tweet addressing his thoughts on population and running out of fresh water. Elon pointed out that the Earth has more water than we could possibly use and that desalination costs $3 for 1,000 gallons.
No, Earth has more water than we could possibly use and desalination only costs $3 for 1000 gallons!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 27, 2022
Vanessa pointed out that, yes, we are going to have to have water pipelines. “I know there is talk about doing desalination down in Mexico to replenish Lake Powell and the reservoirs up the Colorado because we’ve been starving Mexico of their share. They get 9% and the delta doesn’t have any life left in it. It’s desert now. I know there’s talk but I don’t know how feasible it is for them to do anything in the near future.”
How Going Viral On TikTok Helped Amplify Vanessa’s Voice
Vanessa has been focused on raising awareness about the river’s decline for seven years now. She would talk to anyone who would listen, and the idea of taking the hike began to form. TikTok was a new thing for her, and going viral was something she didn’t expect to happen.
“I’ve only been doing TikTok for about six months. So for six and a half years, I was talking to whoever would listen about the water crisis that we’re going through. This whole thing is completely new to me and the fact that I’m starting a conversation — the first Colorado River TikTok that I made got like 300,000 views or something like that — that is well over the reach that thought I would ever get. It was absolutely mind-blowing. I was actually in tears and since then I’ve had people donate to the cause. I had somebody buy me a hiking cart so that my dog and I could feasibly do this.
“But really, my whole goal is to start the conversation and when people are aware that there’s a situation, then that’s the first step to finding a resolution. I’m not an expert on this subject. I’ve done my own research but I have no background in this. This is me developing myself independently.”
Sometimes it’s those who aren’t the experts who have the most passion and that passion is what drives us to change the world for the better. I’m going to be keeping in touch with Vanessa and will do a few follow-ups to this article as she starts her journey, shares what she has seen, and as she finishes it. Once her journey is completed, I’m sure she will have learned a lot more and I am ready to listen. Let’s get this conversation started.
If you would like to donate to Vanessa as she prepares for this journey, click here.
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