'Downstream, Death of the Mighty Colorado'

  • Photo 1 of 5

    Once a flowing, lush river, the Colorado runs dry in Sonora, Mexico.

    - Courtesy of Brian L. Frank/Redux

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    Sitting on her family's failing farm in Sonora, Mexico, a grandmother is comforted by her granddaughter. The Colorado River used to provide plenty of water to keep the farm thriving. Overuse of the river has caused the entire area to dry up.

    - Courtesy of Brian L. Frank/Redux

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    Despite the scarcity of water in the Southwest, big cities like Phoenix are allowed to thrive. Here a young boy beats the summer heat in a pool outside of Phoenix.

    - Courtesy of Brian L. Frank/Redux

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    Not far from the affluent suburbs, people who used to rely on the water are out of luck. Here a girl cries after her mother splashed her with a little water to keep her cool.

    - Courtesy of Brian L. Frank/Redux

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    Cities like Los Angeles have grown and thrived using scarce waters like that of the Colorado River. As the cities continue to grow, the water slows to a trickle and dries up further down stream.

    - Courtesy of Brian L. Frank/Redux

Not far from the affluent suburbs, people who used to rely on the water are out of luck. Here a girl cries after her mother splashed her with a little water to keep her cool.


Kai Ryssdal: The Colorado River flows from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado down through Utah and Arizona, along the border with California to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Flow might be too generous a word, actually. Because we use so much of the Colorado's water in the American Southwest for both irrigation and development, what used to be a river is actually just a trickle by the time it crosses the Mexican border. Some years, it never even reaches the sea.

Today on our series, The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they consider the economy, photojournalist Brian Frank. He's been documenting the changes along the course of the Colorado River.

Brian, welcome to the program.

Brian Frank: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: I wanted to start with an image that actually started you on your journey down along the Colorado River. It's taken from a bridge somewhere between the U.S. and Mexico, I guess. I want you to describe it for us and then tell me why it inspired you to tell the story of this river.

Frank: Actually, I was in the middle of working in northern Mexico, teaching photojournalism to kids. And I was driving on the freeway across a bridge, into the nearest city called San Luis, I looked down and you can see this giant trough where the Colorado River used to run and used to feed the whole area and all the farms. And even the sign is still there kind of graffittied and tattered. The best way I could describe it was as a dust bowl. It reminded me of, you know, the old pictures I saw from the Farm Security Administration of just total agricultural collapse. And it made me kind of question what this area used to look like and what it could look like if the water wasn't being misused.

Ryssdal: This sensation that you had of it being a dust bowl, did you shoot and develop your prints in a way to echo some of those great Farm Security Administration pictures?

Frank: Sure. I used older cameras and old black and white stock. I felt that that would lend itself to that feel of those older images that are you know a part of our history. I also looked for images that were a little more timeless. You don't really know when these images were taken, whether they were taking recently or taken 40 years ago.

Ryssdal: Well, there is this one picture there. It reminded me so much of Dorothea Lang and the picture she did called "Migrant Mother." Your picture is a grandmother in Sonora, Mexico sitting with her granddaughter, and it just struck me how similar those two images were.

Frank: That image is the image that sums up the story for me. It's an image that really shows how this story relates not only to the economy and to agriculture but also to immigration. This is a family who had their son deported from the U.S. and sent back to live on this farm, which was already failing, therefore his whole family came with him from the States, because they didn't want to break up the family. And so now this small farm is trying to support twice as many people as it should without the water that it used to have and the farm failed.

Ryssdal: Yeah, it's a story too of, certainly on this side of the border, of the haves and the have-nots. You've got a couple images of kids playing in water. One of them is a kid in a backyard in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood and the other one is this little girl standing in what looks like a dirty puddle in a run down part of Phoenix, Arizona. It's definitely, water gives and water takes away.

Frank: I found these scenes like the ones you're talking about on the U.S. side as well. These scenes with this huge disparity in wealth and in access to water. It ended up not being just a story about the U.S. versus Mexico. I came across extreme poverty on the U.S. side as well. To me that was a shock that I had images that, they looked very similar to some of my stuff from Mexico and they were taken right there in Arizona.

Ryssdal: You said you went in search of this cultural story, but it did turn out to be, I think, at least the pictures show, very much an economic story.

Frank: Yeah, this thing has a lot to do with money and it has a lot to do with the economy obviously. You know, the majority of this water is siphoned off before it gets to our southern neighbor, and it's siphoned off in order to help feed places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Without this water source and without the power and agriculture it provides, these economies would not be booming the way that they are. That many people should not live there. There is no way that area can ecologically support that population. Unfortunately, that might mean that this problem isn't going to go anywhere.

Ryssdal: Brian Frank's photo essay about the Colorado River is called "Down Stream, Death of the Mighty Colorado." Brian, thanks a lot.

Frank: Thanks so much.

View photos from the exhibit in our slideshow or see more from the collection on Brian's website.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Not far from the affluent suburbs, people who used to rely on the water are out of luck. Here a girl cries after her mother splashed her with a little water to keep her cool.

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While I don't agree with the hurtful rich vs. poor politics underlying Brian's views, anyone who can integrate power lines into photos sucessfully and who masters black & white photography is very talented.

"To me that was a shock that I had images that, they looked very similar to some of my stuff from Mexico and they were taken right there in Arizona."

Earth to Brian: Maybe Phoenix now looks like Tijuana because of the invasion of illegal aliens? Did you expect the wealthy elites and government/union employees to move here?

In the autumn of 1922, Aldo and Carl Leopold explored the lower Colorado. Aldo described the trip in "The Delta Colorado, Being An Account of Voyage and Discovery by Carl and Aldo Leopold, Gentleman-Adventurers." He described in great detail the vibrant, rich delta wilderness and wildlife. He wrote of the Colorado delta trip again, years later, in "A Sand County Almanac" concluding that, "Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness."

David, surely you jest are you being sarcastic? As respectfully as I can put it David, that is an idiotic suggestion. Swamps and wet lands would dry up, fish and wildlife habitat would be drastically altered. Your suggestion speaks of the self centeredness of many of you desert dwellers. You moved to a desert, it should be a desert, places like that are completely unsustainable. Your answer is to ask for more water to water your little green lawn, despicable. People used to move to places like arizona and colorado for the clean air, dry climate and lack of allergens, then they went and planted and transplanted plants from the east that needed more water and produce guess what, allergens. Your idea is another gross example of selfish short sightedness.

Kai & Brian,

Excellent photo-journalism Brian; and thank you Kai for including this on Marketplace. I'm often chided by friends in LA for moving back to Michigan. Although it wasn't for altruistic motives, I've long been aware of the unsustainable nature of living in Southern California and the Southwest. The over use and privatization of water, without well-thought out conservation methods and change in wasteful habits, will someday come to haunt our way of life as we know it.

Thanks for reminding us.

Rodney Drewery
Detroit, MI


why not pump the missouri river or half of it, across kansas and colorado, not too far as things go, and to the headwaters of the colorado. using wind energy. and recoup most back from hydro dams on the colorado. charge for the water. make a profit on it. the mississippi wont even miss it, probably. or the diversion could be during high water periods, stored in lake mead, for instance. we have all this fresh water flowing into the gulf every day of our lives and basically just disappearing. probably a national resource, or could be.

Great job Brian. really important story to document.

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