High above the ground, three six-seater Cessna 210 airplanes are flying in formation. Below them stretches the arid landscape that dominates much of the Colorado River watershed. Inside the planes are college students from around Colorado hoping to get a new perspective on the drought crisis in the Colorado River basin.
The eight college students and one young journalist were assembled by local non-profit EcoFlight for an annual program called Flight Across America. This year’s program was a three-day itinerary focused on water in the west. The students, journalist, pilots and support staff traveled together, getting an aerial perspective of landmarks like the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam and meeting with regional water experts.
“You really don’t grasp the expanse of a river basin until you can see it from above. You can see all of the different fingers that are draining into one place. You can also really see those boundaries and the ways that we’ve chosen to ignore those boundaries and move water from one side to the other side,” said journalist Teal Lehto, aka Western Water Girl, who primarily uses social media platforms like TikTok to educate the public about water issues.
EcoFlight educates and advocates for the protection of wildlands across the Western United States, typically flying activists and politicians for an improved perspective on salient conservation issues. They hope the Flight Across America program will inspire these students to be leaders on these issues, both in their schools and in their careers.
Six-seater Cessna airplanes flying in formation near the border of Colorado and New Mexico. Photo courtesy of EcoFlight
“I think having that unique bird’s eye view of the Colorado River Basin made it a lot easier for me to conceptualize the numbers that we’re constantly taught in class. We’re told ‘this many million-acre-feet are being lost from evaporation, this many million-acre-feet are being held up behind a dam.’ It’s hard to conceptualize that when you’re on the ground, but when you’re above it looking down you can really see the volume,” said Evani Gomez, a student in environmental science and technology at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
The group started their journey in Aspen, Colorado. The idea was to start at the top of the watershed, flying over high peaks laden with snow. They would then fly downstream, taking in landmarks along the way until reaching Lake Powell. The students were able to fly the Colorado Plateau, the Green River and its confluence with the Colorado, Labyrinth Canyon, the city of Page and the Glen Canyon Dam, among many others.
“You see this huge panorama of canyons and deserts and mountains, and a tiny little ribbon of water. It’s so baffling that so much landscape is relying on this one little ribbon,” said McKenna Deeble, a 19-year-old studying sustainability at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs. “When we went over Lake Powell, they had to tell me it was a lake. I didn’t realize because it looks just like a stream, it’s so empty.”
Their program culminated in a presentation by the students at TACAW in Willits that also featured Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company and Pete McBride, a National Geographic photographer and noted filmmaker.
Themes from the presentation included friction between the upper and lower basin states over water use, the overallocation of water across the West, the crisis in water management at the nation’s two largest reservoirs and the need to combat climate change.
On April 11, the federal government released new draft plans to deal with the looming threat to hydropower generation and water releases at Lakes Powell and Mead. If the seven states which share water from the Colorado River basin — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — cannot come up with an agreement to cut back their water use, the federal government says it will step in and make the cuts for them.
“Something that really hit me was when we saw the town of Page. From the sky you see this really dry desert and this shrinking water source and then Page has apple trees and green grass. It seems so out of place in the context of this desert and this crisis we’re in,” said Deeble. “It really just made me think about how we’re in this crisis, not only in water, but in climate, but we just try to say ‘everything’s fine, we still have our trees, everything’s green, we’re good.’ But from the sky you can’t escape the realities of these big problems.”
The Flight Across America group at the Sante Fe Regional Airport after an overflight of the Pecos Watershed, Calf Canyon-Hermit’s Peak burn scar, and the proposed Thompson Peak Recommended Wilderness Area. Joined by photographers and reporters from the Albuquerque Journal, Source New Mexico, ProPublica, and Sante Fe Public Radio. Photo courtesy of EcoFlight