On May 24, 1869, a group of ten men lead by John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, began a trip from Green River through more than 900 miles of unexplored territory down the Colorado River.
During the following months, the Colorado River Exploring Expedition charted, surveyed, measured and mapped an area known as the “great unknown” on their way to the Virgin River, a tributary of the Colorado River that today feeds Lake Mead.
Powell’s systematic exploration set the foundation for 150 years of consumption of the Colorado River’s water, which fueled development of the West and allowed for the construction of mind-boggling infrastructure from Los Angeles to Phoenix to Denver.
As the 150th anniversary of the expedition approaches, a team of researchers and artists from the University of Wyoming is preparing a series of events and projects with the goal of conducting a similarly systematic examination of the region’s resources and values from a range of perspectives.
The Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition, also known as SCREE, is now two years in the making and set to launch next May.
Tom Minckley, associate professor in the UW Department of Geography, said the world is a very different place than it was in Powell’s day, necessitating a new framework for planning for the future.
“We know that the resources are limited — our Western water use is becoming more efficient, yet our supply is decreasing,” he said.
At the center of the project is a series of outreach events in Colorado River communities next summer, starting in Green River, where Powell’s expedition unloaded boats shipped from Chicago on the brand new Union Pacific Railroad. An edition of UW’s Saturday University will consider Powell’s influence on Western expansion and Wyoming’s connection to the Colorado River Basin.
The conversations will continue in Jensen, Green River and Moab, Utah, and then Page and Flagstaff, Arizona.
Ideally, should the group’s fundraising and logistics proceed as planned, a group of scholars, artists, writers and policy makers will travel from event to event along the river, echoing Powell’s path.
Minckley said the river trip would offer time and space for the travelers to consider the region, its future and its resources, which ultimately support the entire country through agricultural production.
“That’s something slow-moving travel can bring out of people,” he said.
Patrick Kikut, an associate lecturer in the UW Department of Visual and Literary Arts, will be the lead artist on the project. He said he’s long been a student of Thomas Moran, a painter who traveled extensively across the West and journeyed with Powell on a subsequent trip down the Colorado. Much of the art work produced on Powell’s trips was later used by groups promoting travel and settlement in the West.
“I’ve been studying and looking at his field drawings for many, many years,” Kikut said.
One hundred and fifty years later, Kikut’s work is often inspired by highway travel and the human presence left on the landscape. He’s still considering how he’ll use art to illustrate the sesquicentennial trip.
“Thomas Moran and artists from the 1800s did a really good job expressing the beauty of Western wilderness, and I’ve thought about my work in contrast to theirs,” he said.
Kikut is planning to float the length of the river next summer, and he’ll be joined by other artists for several weeks at a time. The work they’re preparing in advance and the work they’ll complete while on the river will be displayed at the project’s outreach sites.
Today’s river, far from the unmapped wilderness of Powell’s day, passes through national forest, Bureau of Land Management territory, wildlife refuges, national parks and Native American reservations in five states. About a third of the river miles have been converted to reservoirs at Flaming Gorge, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Water resources in the Colorado River Basin are allocated through the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact. The compact, which includes seven states, divides the river’s annual flow between Upper Basin and Lower Basin states, with each basin then dividing its share.
The compact depends on the Lower Basin receiving a guaranteed minimum amount. If not, it can make up the difference by calling on the Upper Basin to assure delivery. Such a compact call has never happened, and the upstream ramifications would be hard to predict, but holders of junior water rights in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — including cities and municipalities — would certainly be affected.
A water shortage is a definite possibility in the near future, Minckley said, and is a central component of what he described as the “contemporary great unknown,” in echoing Powell’s original exploratory mission. Storage reservoirs along the river are about half full these days, and winters with low snowfall have a big impact.
“Can we maintain a quality of life as resources become depleted?” Minckley asked.
Another element of the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition is a book involving 16 authors, six artists and two cartographers from the Colorado River Basin region. They’ll be considering Powell’s legacy while envisioning the region’s future as it relates to water, public lands and Native Americans.
The sesquicentennial expedition will be the subject of activities on campus during Geography Awareness Week, which is scheduled for Nov. 12-16.
Go to www.powell150.org for more information about the expedition or to make a donation.