Skip to main content

As the Colorado River dries up, a documentary satirizes — and examines — the greed that got us here

Email share

The topic of water, with its life-giving nature, political gravity and free flowing beauty, is an issue that strikes close to the hearts of many. Whether it's the river through your town that you float on in the summer, a lake where you picnic, or the small stream where you hunt for crawdads, most everyone has a body of water to which they feel connected.

In the Southwest, whether you feel it or not, that body of water is the Colorado River.

As filmmakers from the West Coast, our appreciation for the Colorado River flowed from our love of the Willamette River and Pacific Ocean, which nourished us growing up.

As Colorado College students living on the Front Range, we began research for Rivers Run Out, aware of our reliance on the river but naive to many of the complexities of issues in the Colorado River Basin. Throughout the process of making this documentary, we have been humbled by our own privilege; we have felt this in our consistent and unquestioned access to water, and in the ways we’ll be affected by these problems in the future. 

Currently, state and federal governments scramble for ways to cut back and limit use of the river in the face of a 20-year mega-drought, expansive aridification and climate change. The context of this urgency is evident as reservoirs dry up, farmers are forced to sell and dry land, and urban areas' water supply is finally in question. 

How this issue came to be, despite many warnings from scientists, explorers and environmentalists, is a topic of controversy and intricacy. We hope to untangle some of these complexities with Rivers Run Out, and, with a dose of satirized reality, interpret the history behind the water crisis and provide a handful of positive solutions.

The modern Colorado River Basin looks very different from when it first became of interest to non-Native settlers. The river surges from its headwaters near Kremmling, Colorado through the southeastern corner of Utah, across Arizona and Nevada. It flows along the edge of California, drying up before reaching the Gulf of California in Mexico. Significant tributaries gather in the mountain ranges of Wyoming and New Mexico and flow into the main stream.

Awareness of the river and its importance for non-Native settlers arose after the Powell Expedition of 1869, when naturalist John Wesley Powell captained the first recorded team of white men through the entirety of the Grand Canyon in just three months. In the decades following, Powell brought attention to the capricious nature of the river and the stakes of mismanaging water in the west.

“You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights,” he warned in 1893 to a congress of farmers and developers. “There is not enough water to supply the land.”

As white settlers moved west, infringing on Native land, water in the arid landscape grew in importance. In the 1880s, the Colorado Doctrine guaranteed water rights to those who first draw from a source, if they continue to use it in its entirety. Soon after, seven states and the federal government crafted the Colorado River Compact in 1922; it divided an optimistic estimate of the flow in the river between the seven states.

The river’s flow was incredibly inconsistant, varying to extremes in the winter and summer seasons. Still, 16 million acre-feet (an acre-foot equals a football field filled with one foot of water) was put down on paper, unquestioned.

As we pass the one hundredth anniversary of the compact, we are finding less water in the river and more people to feed. Century-old policies coupled with 100 years of extreme development in a desert are forcing a reckoning that will define a generation. Has overallocation encouraged us to develop unsustainable lifestyles? Who will bear the brunt of no water? How will they be affected? How can we change? The future of the West could depend on it.

As states fail to reach a consensus on how water in the river will be redistributed, real solutions are happening on the ground level. Tribal nations, urban planners and ranchers across the state are identifying localized solutions stemming from ingenuity or necessity, and oftentimes both.

Along the Front Range, promotion of water reuse and turf grass removal is becoming more common, usually paired with educational landscaping programs that champion drought-tolerant, native plants. On the West Slope, many ranchers are leaning into regenerative agriculture. This method prioritizes soil health, mimics natural cycles and keeps moisture and carbon in the soil. At Farm and Ranch Enterprises on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, many seemingly nuanced aspects of regenerative agriculture have been practiced for generations and are now being supported by technology to maximize efficiency of water use.

These specific examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Many people are finding solutions outside of the framework established by water policy in the West. Despite effective solutions being practiced, the unfortunate reality is that individuals cannot reverse decades of overuse, development of some of the biggest urban areas in the country, nor a political framework that discourages conservation.

In the documentary short Rivers Run Out, we hear directly from these individuals in the context of the fictional game show “Game Night.” Within a classic board game, Urban, Tribal and Agricultural interests attempt to develop as much land as possible by utilizing water resource cards. While nothing can be a perfect analogy for the complex issues facing the Colorado River Basin, the game aims to illustrate the river’s management over time and provide some explanations for our current water crisis.

The film poses many questions regarding the future of the Colorado River Basin: How will we cut back our uses of the river? What will infrastructure look like? Will future generations be able to experience the river? Rivers Run Out satirizes the backwards, racist and greed-driven "rules" that have dictated development in the West, and emphasizes the stakes of the issues at hand.

Rivers Run Out

It's Game Night, where we explore the history and inequities of the Colorado River Basin.

Related Stories

Spotlight Newsletter

Community stories from across Colorado and updates on your favorite PBS programs, in your inbox every Tuesday.

Sign up here!