Once a flowing, lush river, the Colorado runs dry in Sonora, Mexico.
Once a flowing, lush river, the Colorado runs dry in Sonora, Mexico. - 
Listen To The Story


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.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal