Picturing the Drought

July 25th, 2015
in econ_news

Special Report from ProPublica

by Michael Friberg, Matter

Documenting the water crisis in the West, a photographer confronts distress, beauty and man's complicity.

Follow up:

Text and photos by Michael Friberg, special to ProPublica July 7, 2015 - A collaboration with Medium

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is finishing a $1.4 billion tunnel and pumping station that amounts to a drain hole in the bottom of Lake Mead, a project that some think will allow nearby Las Vegas to continue taking water even after the generators and pumps in the Hoover Dam stop operating.

Friberg 008 b7010ce2fdd525ec7c052570a6f31b8a938666973976cc14e7e2fae302b123c3

"Killing the Colorado," a joint reporting project by ProPublica and Matter, set out to tell the truth about the American West's water crisis. As serious as the drought is, the investigation found that mismanagement of that region's surprisingly ample supply has led to today's emergency. Among the causes are the planting of the thirstiest crops; arcane and outdated water rights laws; the unchecked urban development in unsustainable desert environments; and the misplaced confidence in human ingenuity to engineer our way out of a crisis - with dams and canals, tunnels and pipelines.

Friberg 005 c94278ec17fdc9f771bc2530ae0d77f52ecd1c2f82fd2f05b59661d4090b7576

Michael Friberg said:

"The hardest thing about photographing this project was that all of this was and is beautiful. Lake Powell looks like a prehistoric sea on the surface of another planet."

Four photographers - Christaan Felber, Bryan Schutmaat, Jake Stangel and Michael Friberg - were enlisted by photo editors Luise Stauss and Ayanna Quint to document man's mistakes and their consequences. Friberg, who has lived in the West for the last decade, thought he knew the issues facing the Colorado River. He soon discovered he was wrong.

When I received this assignment to photograph varying aspects of the man-made infrastructure put in place to control every last drop of water coming from the river, I was blown away by the sheer scale of it all. We decided to structure my road trip around three so called "lakes" (reservoirs) that each serve a different function in supplying water and power to the almighty, never-ending expansion of western megacities.

Friberg 001 466c680bc44efe8e814b6b6bac3777f9243474ae752e4d279705c0acb30b8bc9
At the Hoover Dam.

Said Gary Wockner, executive director of Save the Colorado, an advocacy group:

"The Colorado River is already extremely depleted. There is nothing left to give, and it's time to go to plan B, which is water conservation efficiency. It's faster, cheaper and easier than building these new dams."

Friberg 003 8e599d7a9b49d01e97e16cf75f109792d3b3035617d7c0bbf5a5b4dc4d7180fa
A hallway inside the Glen Canyon Dam.

What I encountered along the way was both awe-inspiring and profoundly discouraging. The Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona was created almost for the express purpose of providing the power needed to pump water hundreds of miles, up over mountains, to Phoenix. The Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell, which is not really a lake at all but a massive twisting, turning reservoir with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. The Central Arizona Project is a nondescript-looking canal that flows out of the side of a hill coming from Lake Havasu. It runs at a languid pace for over 300 miles, providing a large percentage of the water that central and southern Arizona cities receive.

Friberg 006 c7eb3b7de9d32e0de88458fa7c63b0deaa82572aa072b1e4f6d9556969249a7c
The Parker Dam on the border of California and Arizona. Said to be the "deepest dam in the world," with some 235 feet of it below the riverbed of the Colorado.

Friberg 007 82360604d7462f2c2461da63ab48f24414985136d76c057ee79bfced017ca3b8
A portion of the Central Arizona Project canal. Arizona built its $4.4 billion mega canal in in order to lay claim to its full share of water from the Colorado River.

When I got to Lake Mead, it looked like a dirty toilet: a huge ring encompassed the entire shoreline. We stumbled upon a marina that was abandoned, old food still rotting in the kitchen, the docks bent upward by the ground they were never supposed to touch.

Friberg 009 a543c89da992cf902ca6ba6a4f0657827e013c562684015dab3a8db653d08811
At Lake Mead, nearly 40 miles southeast of Las Vegas, water levels have dropped nearly 140 feet from their high.

Friberg 010 a3552e2a4c616559f40ac5569c4232a4955218e9951c424df696adb76d9501f2
The Navajo station's infernos gobble 15 tons of coal each minute, 24 hours each day, every day.

The hardest thing about photographing this project was that all of this was and is beautiful. Lake Powell looks like a prehistoric sea on the surface of another planet. The dams are all monumental achievements to man's both genius and hubris. Even the coal plant, an easy target for photographers, ripe with clichés, was beautiful in its own way.

Friberg 011 798ef7067230e84d966aad59aefe4688ec9b360e8817e392189abfce2448831c

Said Jared Blumenfeld, of the Environmental Protection Agency:

"The mechanics of moving water is just lost on people."

Friberg 018 97e6bc852edd9d4c14b6449eaf2815d0e16376ccc27f4caa57364ea69d59868e
If water levels drop enough at Lake Mead, the federal government will declare a shortage and Nevada and Arizona will face dramatic cuts in supply.

How can you show these things without romanticizing them? Trying to figure out how to show the scale of all of these projects without making saccharine images of dams and lakes was the biggest challenge.

Friberg 013 f38557bfe47d945fc132cce86a5946d41cac1aaacdba99ce438e6fc4121e39bf
Turbines inside the Glen Canyon Dam, a great source of electrical power for the American Southwest.

Friberg 014 9928d8e0bd14dfa23d067e8071ae3d62e16ace07f0b177b53db3c3d69cbdeaec
Lake Powell, which sits behind the 700-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam and is the nation's second-largest water reserve, has recently fluctuated between 39 and 51 percent full.

Throughout, I was constantly reminded of my own complicity. I live in a big city in the West and while I might not get my water from the Colorado, I sure as hell get it from some other man-made reservoir. When I turn on the lights in my house, I'm sure it's from a coal-fired plant I'd rather not think about.

The only thing that gives me hope is that if we could figure all of this out 60 or 70 years ago, hopefully we can do it again.

Friberg 015 7cd316c412e29e527a7eb67d5c87c3e6e7745e95227a7546e4cae82eb4f3bc39
The Navajo Generating Station promised to take the traditional coal plant and supersize it, employing state-of-the-art generators to produce 2,250 megawatts of power, more than all but a handful of the operating plants in the nation at the time.

Friberg 016 3c21ad9441a5cb56f6fc1ab6160405a21aa9dd09a8ffed4da2248cfbce4c0087
As water levels in Lake Mead outside Las Vegas continued to fall, the city's growth raced on, all but unchecked.

Friberg 017 34e9dd31d6cfc0be3cc46f3468c12892192d95a5ac8332bc58cc5864a593c9dc
A view from the Hoover Dam.

Photographer Michael Friberg said of the water crisis:

"I was constantly reminded of my own complicity. I live in a big city in the West and while I might not get my water from the Colorado, I sure as hell get it from some other man-made reservoir."


Make a Comment

Econintersect wants your comments, data and opinion on the articles posted.  As the internet is a "war zone" of trolls, hackers and spammers - Econintersect must balance its defences against ease of commenting.  We have joined with Livefyre to manage our comment streams.

To comment, just click the "Sign In" button at the top-left corner of the comment box below. You can create a commenting account using your favorite social network such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn or Open ID - or open a Livefyre account using your email address.

 navigate econintersect.com


Analysis Blog
News Blog
Investing Blog
Opinion Blog
Precious Metals Blog
Markets Blog
Video of the Day


Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

RSS Feeds / Social Media

Combined Econintersect Feed

Free Newsletter

Marketplace - Books & More

Economic Forecast

Content Contribution



  Top Economics Site

Investing.com Contributor TalkMarkets Contributor Finance Blogs Free PageRank Checker Active Search Results Google+

This Web Page by Steven Hansen ---- Copyright 2010 - 2016 Econintersect LLC - all rights reserved