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Water Course

Twelve sophomores spent two weeks rafting through the Grand Canyon, immersed in the issue that will determine the future of the West: Is there enough water to go around?

Kevin Cool

SPRAY AND WASH: Students frolic in a pool below Havasu Creek's Beaver Falls.

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By Kevin Cool

Buzz Thompson is one of the world's leading authorities on water rights, and he has special expertise on laws governing the Colorado River. But at this moment, on a blistering day in early September, somewhere around mile 24 between Lee's Ferry and Diamond Creek, the Stanford law professor's primary interest in the river is getting the hell out of it.

He is clinging to the side of a raft, buffeted by churning water, his hat and sunglasses somehow still attached after he was deposited into the freezing, frothy mix by a heavy wave moments earlier. Thompson drags his lanky frame, soaked and dripping, up and into the boat, landing in a heap at the feet of his fellow paddlers, mostly undergraduates, in the eight-person craft. He gathers himself and sits up, smiling. The boat erupts in a cheer. Thompson is the first person in this party to "swim." He will not be the last.

Thompson, '73, MBA '75, JD '76, is here with 12 Stanford students, three other faculty and three teaching assistants as part of a Sophomore College course titled Water in the West. They are three days into a two-week, 225-mile journey through the Grand Canyon.

Karen Minot
INTERACTIVE MAP: Click to explore the map and see parts of the Sophomore College journey.


The brainchild of David Kennedy, '63, professor of history emeritus and co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the West, which sponsored the trip, this was one of 19 Sophomore College courses this year and the first to ply the Colorado River. It aimed to immerse students in the political, social and geographical issues surrounding the use and distribution of water in the western United States.

The Colorado is not the longest or largest river in the country, but it might be the most important. It is certainly the most fought-over. Because of its gravity-fed path—it drops more than 10,000 feet along its 1,450 miles—the river is ideal for producing hydroelectricity. And because it runs through a region that is mostly arid semidesert, its water is coveted. Dammed, disrupted and diverted for decades, it quenches thirsty cities of the Southwest and supplies irrigation to some of the country's most productive agricultural areas.

For students, the river was more than an outdoor classroom; it was also a passageway to a primeval place few people get to see. Millions visit the Grand Canyon rim every year; fewer than 20,000 travel its length in a boat. In addition to being a mind-bending geologic marvel—its oldest exposed earth dates back 2 billion years—the Grand Canyon when seen from the bottom unfolds as a labyrinth of mysterious hollows, hidden cataracts and secret gardens. Nearly every day the group hiked up pristine slot canyons to a charming natural amphitheatre or a pretty waterfall to hear lectures or discuss topics surrounding the Colorado and its management. And when they weren't doing that, they encountered some of the world's most exhilarating whitewater in five rubber rafts led by guides from AzRA Discovery, an outfitter with 46 years of experience on the Colorado.

As a final project, to be presented back on campus following the trip, students were expected to form "platoons" of three to four members and develop an informational website. The goal was to learn all they could about water. After 14 days on this twisty, tormented river, they were thoroughly drenched.

On a scorched section of Highway 93 south of Las Vegas, David Kennedy leaned toward the window of the bus and with a nod, indicated a seemingly empty stretch of desert. "In a sense, you can see the river from here," he said. Students craned their necks, trying to locate anything resembling water. "The power lines," Kennedy interjected. "The power in those lines is supplied by the Colorado River."

A few minutes later, the bus passed over Hoover Dam, built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1935 to supply hydroelectricity to the region and create a storage reservoir—Lake Mead. Its construction spurred development throughout the Southwest by providing cheap, reliable power, and enough water to enable population growth and expanded agricultural irrigation. In 1930, Las Vegas was a sleepy hamlet of 5,165. By 1960, the population had grown to nearly 65,000. Thirty years after that, it was approaching 300,000.

Hoover was the first in a series of dams that transformed the region, and the river. Parker Dam, completed in 1938, backed up the river for 45 miles, creating Lake Havasu. Glen Canyon Dam, perhaps the most controversial dam in America, was built in 1964 after a massive public outcry prevented a dam down river in Marble Canyon. It established Lake Powell and set in motion ecological changes that threatened species in and around the river.

The dams made the growth of Los Angeles possible. On average, the country's second largest city receives less than 20 inches of rainfall per year, about the same as Morocco. But bent on expansion and prosperity, officials in 1920s Southern California persuaded—some would say hoodwinked—authorities into building a gravity-defying 242-mile aqueduct over mountains and across the desert to deliver Colorado River water to its doorstep. Turn a tap in San Diego and what comes out is water from the Colorado River.

Allocating the river's water has been contentious for more than 100 years. In 1922, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, Class of 1895, forged the Colorado River Compact to divvy up the water that flows between the seven states in the river's watershed and Mexico, where the river empties (or used to) into the Gulf of California. The compact allotted 7.5 million acre-feet to the four states in the upper basin—Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming—and a like amount to California, Nevada and Arizona, states in the lower basin. (An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of 12 inches.) California has exceeded its 4.4 million acre-foot allotment every year for the past 10 years. To make up the deficit, it has borrowed from Arizona's allocation or been granted surplus water that was available. But drought and increasing use by Arizona will soon force California to live within its allocation—or find additional water sources.

As the bus passed Lake Mead, Ben Lerman, a Los Angeles native who said part of his interest in the course was his hometown's dependence on the Colorado River, looked at the reservoir and shook his head. "It's over 100 degrees out. Just imagine how much it loses in evaporation."

No need to imagine—the correct figure is 1 million acre-feet per year, more than three times Nevada's entire allotment.

Every morning at 5:15, a guide blew into a conch shell, sending a warbling "woaaaaaaaoh" across the sand, signaling "get up!" and "coffee's ready." After a hearty breakfast (pancakes and sausage were staples), students formed a picket—a "bag line"—to ferry gear into the boats.

Then, they picked a raft. Four were rowed individually by guides and the fifth, the "paddle boat," held six or seven student rowers and the helmsman, Sharon "Shay" Hester. Students vied for access to the paddle boat to test their skills on days when big rapids were expected.

On this day, the water was mostly quiet but the scenery breathtaking. Near noon, the boats pulled into Redwall Cavern, an enormous chamber carved from an overhanging cliff hundreds of feet high. When John Wesley Powell, the first known explorer to navigate the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, discovered it in 1869, he marveled and said it could hold 50,000 people.

Seizing the opportunity, Kennedy gathered the students and talked about Powell. A pioneer in many respects, Powell had the foresight to recognize that the river could be exploited and that managing it carefully would be important. He described in painstaking detail which parts of the West were suitable for irrigation—roughly 2 percent by his accounting—and suggested that to minimize disagreements, watershed boundaries be used to set state lines. In a statement that was frightfully prescient, Powell told farming advocates at an irrigation conference in 1883, "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." Even he probably could not have imagined that farmers hundreds of miles from the river would one day have the audacity to lay claim to the Colorado's water.

But lay claim to it they did: Since 1938 the Imperial Dam has gathered water from the Colorado for transport to the Imperial Valley in the southeastern corner of California via a concrete channel—the All-American Canal. Today, more than 80 percent of the water diverted to California is used for agriculture.

Perhaps channeling Powell that afternoon, several students took turns steering the rafts, at times through mild rapids. Guide Alan Fisk-Williams showed Will Toaspern how to identify the eddies running upriver, and how to maneuver the boat if caught in one. Although not mentioned in the syllabus, this too was part of the education. "The guides were great; I love the outdoors, and they were so knowledgeable and so good at passing on what they knew. For me, it was a big part of the experience," Toaspern said.

Life on the river quickly toughened the skins and spirits of the students, even those familiar with wilderness conditions. Before the trip commenced, Fisk-Williams had alerted them to some of the critters they might encounter. Rattlesnakes, scorpions and food-stealing ravens were examples, but the ones most likely to be agents of agony were fire ants: The "ferocious little bastards" have a venomous sting that lingers for days. Sure enough, in every campsite red ants swarmed, and avoiding them became a kind of insect dodgeball. Aline Bass was hit early in the trip and sported a nickel-sized welt on her leg the next day. "It hurts," she said. "A lot."

Temperatures were usually sweltering, especially late in the day. Any shady spot in camp became prized real estate. Sand penetrated every open surface and pore. In the toggle between rafting and hiking, students were alternately wet and cold, or hot and filthy for long parts of each day.

Kennedy and Thompson both noticed the striking lack of whining. "I haven't heard anybody complain," Kennedy said. "They seem to be a hardy lot."

The payoff came at night. Surrounded by rock that radiated the heat like a convection oven, students simply threw down a pad on the sand and went to sleep beneath a star canopy delivered in stunning high definition, with the sounds of the river in the background.

Students confronted many physical challenges but none quite as daunting as the hike to the Mile 50 Diving Board, an escarpment that looms 1,500 feet over the river.

Fisk-Williams was usually ebullient and students found his "let's go get 'em" attitude infectious. So they listened intently when, describing the trek ahead, he turned serious: "If you use poor judgment, your life is at risk."

The trail was barely a trail at all; guides Kim Fawcett and Louise Teal had reconnoitered the previous afternoon to be sure they remembered the route. They made it to the top, but not without some dramatic moments. "It's scary," Fawcett conceded.

The trail featured long drop-offs in a few areas, including an unnerving 30-foot section that required negotiating a ledge no wider than a shoe while grasping the underside of a small overhang. The exposure unsettled even veteran hikers—the chatter that enlivened most hikes disappeared as everyone concentrated on the rock.

After two hours of climbing, all the students reached the pinnacle and exulted in expansive views of the river. They had entered a new phase, and were beginning to gel as a group, Kennedy noted to his colleagues. "They helped each other get up here," he said.

That afternoon, they learned more about the ecological problems associated with Glen Canyon Dam. Clad in a river hat and sandals, standing beneath a beach umbrella to ward off the sun, engineering professor David Freyberg—a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment—described how the dam had made life miserable for the endangered humpback chub, a fish that lives only in the turbulent waters of the Colorado and whose numbers have plummeted since the dam was installed.

The two major causes of the chub's threatened demise are colder water resulting from the dam's flow—water passing through the dam comes from the bottom of Lake Powell—and the introduction of non-native predators, especially trout. Spurred by the Endangered Species Act, federal officials have taken steps to alleviate conditions harmful to the chub, including removing tens of thousands of trout. The chub's numbers have recovered somewhat, Freyberg noted, but its future remains cloudy.

The dam has had other ecological effects. Sediment that would have flowed into the narrow gorges of the Grand Canyon, creating sand bars that provide habitat for plants and animals, was trapped behind the dam. Naturally occurring floods that once scoured the sand bars of vegetation also ended when the dam went up. As a result, non-native flora proliferated, pushing out native species. Recently, flows from the dam have been modified to assist in restoration efforts, with some success, but invasive species continue to prosper while native species suffer.

Nicole Ardoin, who holds joint appointments at the School of Education and the Woods Institute, conducts research on what motivates environmental activism. She engaged the students throughout the trip in discussions about the intangible effects the Grand Canyon has on humans.

Earlier in the day, the group had completed what for many was the most magnificent hike of their lives: a seven-mile excursion from Tapeat's Creek to Deer Creek. Along the way, they frolicked under a waterfall at aptly named Thunder River, meandered through the former Paiute hunting grounds in the high desert scrub of Surprise Valley—and noted the remains of an ancient roasting pit—and finished with a traverse of the ledges along Deer Creek. The creek tumbles down a narrow flume whose vertical walls and serpentine path invite a curious (but cautious) peek over the edge, and then ends with a splash, dumping over a fall into the river.

Later, students sat in a circle around a "campfire"—a battery-powered lantern covered by a translucent bucket—as darkness descended. Ardoin invited them to share their thoughts on the canyon and how its "sense of place" had affected them.

The conversation began slowly, tentatively, but eventually nearly everyone spoke. Several expressed a feeling of dislocation, of being turned upside down, and spoke of how that perspective had startled them into a deeper understanding of themselves.

"This trip has caused me to question things I thought I knew when I came, including whether I really want to be a doctor," said Ben Lerman. "I wonder if I will revert back to what I thought I knew when I'm away from here, or if what I've felt here will stay with me."

"I expected to be scared of the rapids," Annie Rempel acknowledged. "My confidence has grown. From now on I don't think I will always be wondering 'Is this a smart thing to do?' or 'Am I going to get hurt?' I want to experience everything I can."

For Julia Barrero, there was perplexity, too. The canyon had moved her profoundly, in ways that deepened her belief in preservation. But how could she convey that to others? "It's difficult to proselytize to people who haven't experienced this. The challenge is to educate them without them seeing it."

DAY 12
Today's topic is the Mexican delta of the Colorado River, and Thompson, co-director of the Woods Institute, is passionate about it. Standing beside a shallow bend in Kanab Creek, sheltered from the sun by an immense, curved shelf where students sat a few feet above him, he described the demise of one of the world's biggest wetlands.

For millions of years the Colorado ran unimpeded to the Gulf of California, where it nourished a network of estuaries and tidal marshes that covered nearly 2 million acres—roughly twice the size of Rhode Island. The delta provided habitat for more than 300 species of birds and other animals. Today, water from the Colorado, pinched off and siphoned far upstream, seldom reaches the gulf. Instead, the river ends ingloriously, a trickle petering out in the desiccated lowlands below Yuma, Ariz. Most of the delta's wildlife is gone.

"If I could solve one thing, it would be to restore the Mexican delta of the Colorado River," Thompson told the students.

Part of the problem stems from the United States' unwillingness to give Mexico water. Mexico was not included in the water appropriation when the original Compact was signed in 1922. When the dams went up in the 1930s and reservoirs began to fill, the effect was like turning off a spigot below the U.S. border.

In 1944, a treaty granted Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet per year, but most of that water is used for domestic purposes in cities such as Tijuana and Mexicali. "If the delta were in the U.S., the Endangered Species Act would apply, but not in Mexico," Thompson noted. When water does reach the delta it's the brackish, salty leftovers from runoff of the Colorado and its tributaries.

Thompson invited students to propose possible remedies. Among them: Constitute a nonprofit, attract donors, and buy water rights sufficient to ensure a steady flow to the delta. Two groups chose the topic for their final project. Saunders Hayes may have best conveyed why the delta's situation energized him and other students. "It used to be a flourishing place, and now it's a giant mud flat."

After an afternoon of hiking and paddling, students were uncharacteristically stoic. Upon reaching the campsite—a haphazard stack of ledges overlooking the river—they sprawled out on their mats and tended to blistered feet and dinged-up legs. The day died quietly, warm and weary. A breeze followed the water downstream; a halo of light silhouetted the canyon walls as dusk descended.

Just before the final light eked away, a squadron of bats buzzed the beach, flitting a few feet over the heads of the students. This might have spooked them a few days earlier. Not now.

DAY 15
Rain moved in. The sky was the color of dirty dishwater and everyone on the boats abandoned their cotton shirts for the warmth of synthetic outerwear. Fisk-Williams directed the boatmen to position their rafts so that they could float together as one large craft. Kennedy stood on a platform in the middle and commenced a 25-minute lecture as rain pattered down.

"Where does water come from?" he asked. Students avoided the smart-aleck answer given the current conditions.

"Hydrogen and oxygen," one student offered.

"Well, that's the chemical composition of water but that doesn't explain its origin," Kennedy replied.

"The Earth," another student chimed in. But that wasn't it, either.

"As best I understand it, much of the water on earth came from meteor strikes," Kennedy noted. (This is debated, but most scientists agree that ice content in meteors probably supplied some portion of the planet's water.)

"So if we think of it in those terms, water is a gift from the heavens," Kennedy continued. Then, in the best tradition of Stanford, he invented an acronym on the spot: FENS. "Water is finite, essential and non-substitutable, and that makes water different from any other commodity. We can find substitutes for oil, for wheat, for corn. There is no substitute for water."

DAY 16
Archaeological evidence suggests humans have lived in the Grand Canyon for more than 10,000 years. The Hualapai are still there. At Diamond Creek, where the boats would disembark, the Hualapai manage traffic and maintain the access road. This is their land, and fees associated with river trips are a major source of income for the tribe.

Clouds threatened more rain as the rafts pulled in and gear was quickly off-loaded and piled into an AzRA truck. Guides, faculty and students pitched in to remove platforms, storage bins and rigging until only the rafts themselves were left. Then they too came out of the water and were deflated, folded and stored away. Within an hour, there was no trace of the boats and the party was loaded into a bus to begin the drive out.

Suddenly, rain pounded down, making the gravel access road a sluice of fast-moving water, mud and rocks. The bus stopped two miles up at a staging area, where everyone piled out and began to organize their stuff. And then the rain became a deluge. Hunched beneath a small shelter, students dodged puddles at a hastily erected sandwich buffet, grabbing what they could before the bus driver ordered everyone back on board.

If the road washed out, the entire group would have no choice but to retreat to the river, reinflate the rafts and travel downstream to a take-out spot on Lake Mead. "We gotta get outta here," Fisk-Williams said.

The drive out provoked worry and wonder in more or less equal portions. The bus crossed flooded depressions and struggled to get purchase on the rapidly deteriorating road. Meanwhile, gasps were audible as students watched waterfalls triggered by the downpour cascade from notches on cliff walls all around them. The Grand Canyon gave them one last show.

Was the course a success? "We'll see," Kennedy said. "What we tried to do was identify students who have leadership potential, and give them an experience that would enable them to know enough and care enough to engage in these issues long-term. If these dozen students can create a lobby, take what they know and carry it to others, I think we've succeeded."

Thompson was optimistic that the course stimulated thought and action. "In the classroom, water issues are hard to truly appreciate. When you're talking about those issues in the setting, they become real and specific. This was an experiment. One of the great things about Stanford is its willingness to break with traditional ways of doing things."

Moreover, he noted, "This experience reaffirmed my faith and admiration in Stanford undergraduates. When we engaged them, they got the concepts as fast as any law student. This was 24/7 learning. I had a long philosophical discussion with Jon [Proctor] about lying—is it warranted in some situations, and so on. It had nothing to do with our topic, but it was a rich topic nevertheless, about forming character and what that means for society."

As for the students, Will Toaspern called it "one of the best educational experiences of my life. To be here in this incredible place at the same time that some of the world's leading experts are helping you learn about it—that was amazing. And it was also great to see faculty in a different light, to develop a relationship with them that was so different from what we normally have in class. I really appreciated that."

Most of them also appreciated that they might never return to this river, that their journey of discovery was something to treasure. "I want to keep this place close to me," Julia Barrero had said that night in the circle talk. "Forever."

The Woods Institute for the Environment and the Bill Lane Center for the American West have a joint research program on Water in the West. To learn more, visit

Comments (1)

  • Ms. Beth Injasoulian

    This article is a beautifully written accouterment to the "lobby" that is surely inevitable after such a breathtaking encounter with life.

    Posted by Ms. Beth Injasoulian on Jan 14, 2012 7:33 AM


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