BY Pete McBride Photographer, Videographer, Author, and Bank of the West Brand Ambassador

Image Credit: Cover Image: “The Loop”. Located near the Green River confluence in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Jan 10th 2022

Sustainable LivingTaking Action

“North America”: The Endangered Soundscape of the Colorado River

Jan 10th 2022

In the spring of 2020, during the first stages of the Covid-19 lockdown, my career screeched to a stop. As a photographer, filmmaker, writer and public speaker for National Geographic and other international media outlets, I had created a profession that depended on going out into the world, meeting new people, exploring remote corners and bringing home stories. But amidst the pandemic assignments cancelled and gigs got postponed (in some cases, forever). I realized I had to re-invent myself—pronto.

During long “coffee breaks” in my backyard in Colorado, I pondered our new reality and how to change. Days went by, and then it hit me, gently, as spring unfolded, and the melodic notes of the songbirds grew. While the human world around me had gone quiet, the sounds of the natural world had grown chattier. The journal Science would later report that the lockdowns of 2020 marked “the longest and most coherent global seismic noise reduction in recorded history.”

“The sounds of nature can be pin-drop quiet one second and wonderfully loud the next.

Amidst this period of quietude, I reflected on something I had actually experienced for years. Whenever I returned from assignments from remote reaches in wilderness areas nearby or far away, it felt as if the medicine of silence quieted my mental noise, even after I reacclimated to the higher decibels of modernity. So, I decided to embrace this new quiet and tell the story about the power of silence–using essays and a collection of imagery that recalls such sublime places. I also wanted to remind us homo sapiens that the sounds of nature can be pin-drop quiet one second and wonderfully loud the next. Jungles screech and squawk, savannahs roar, mountains rumble, and deserts howl. But to hear any of the magic that nature creates, there needs to be a foundation of silence.

The Colorado River branches off countless times as it seeps into the dry delta.

This essay from my new book Seeing Silence, reflects on my focus around fresh water and drought in the Western US. As a growing, thirsty population demands more from an over-allocated Colorado River system that is facing extreme drought and a changing climate, the soundscape speaks volumes on the health of a river and a watershed.

This story of the Colorado River delta highlights our ongoing water challenges and our impacts on entire ecosystems but also how we can bring them back, and the wild conversations within them, if we choose to. It also reminds us that nature has a lot to say—if we listen.

Fifty miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Colorado River Delta and its once-rich estuary wetlands—reduced by 95 percent since the river was restricted by dams—are now as parched as the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Human interference upstream has led to a barren landscape that no longer supports the song of natural sounds in the wetlands.

“North America”

Early on a spring Sunday in 2014, the white light and arid breeze of the Sonoran Desert ushered in a refreshing morning. Farm workers labored in nearby fields, harvesting produce and moving irrigation pipes, their schedules dictated by moisture and sun. It was a typical day, but at 8:04 a.m., something very atypical happened. A set of giant control wheels on the Morelos Dam, unmoved for decades, started screeching, cranking open the crimson steel gates of the last major blockade on the Colorado River. As the rusty doors lifted, a titanic surge of greenish-brown water raced south, swirling and eddying down a riverbed that had sat parched and unused since the late 1990s. Thirsty tamarisk bushes and cedar grass choked the way forward.

A historic pulse flow moving its way across the dry Colorado River Delta, part of a binational agreement for restoration.

This blast of moisture was what’s called a pulse flow, designed by hydrologists to mimic a natural flood. The massive 105,392-acre-foot release was planned to last eight weeks, followed by smaller pulses over five years to support the rejuvenation of natural vegetation. It was a gush of liquid gold representing what many believed to be unfathomable—an international partnership to bring the river delta back to life.

For six million years, the Colorado annually pushed its way down to the Sea of Cortez, creating the largest desert estuary in North America and providing sanctuary for some 300,000 migrating birds. That cycle, however, diminished starting in the 1960s and then stopped altogether in the late 1990s, as the growing demand for water across seven US and two Mexican states surpassed the river’s over-allocated supply. Today the Colorado is a lifeline for 40 million people, supporting more than five million acres of farmland. But in the process, its famous delta has been dried and muted.

To mark the return of the water, I did what any river rat would do. I paddled it. Working on assignment for Outside, our small band floated the pulse on paddleboards and a canoe—uncertain where the lazy, bubbling flow would lead us.

Pete McBride and a friend paddle the 2014 historic pulse flow in Mexico, listening to the sounds of life brought back to the river. This trip was the first SUP descent — and possibly the last — across this section of river. 

That first day, it took us straight to a fiesta in Rio Colorado, a border community built on the banks of the river. Since the Colorado had been a rio of sand for as long as most folks could recall, the return of the agua warranted a party. Cowboys sashayed and galloped horses, musicians strummed guitarskids splashed, vendors sold tacos, and a fisherman amazingly brought in a catch. The riverbanks rang with whoops and joy.

Two men in business suits walked the sandy, moist banks before me. I asked what brought them down into the mud in such nice suits.

“We are here to see the water, of course,” they said in Spanish, smiling.

Quien bien—beautiful, no?” I responded.

Si, que bien, but we need to see this permanently, like before. What a wonderful sound—a rio flowing again—la vida.” The man smiled and continued walking along the new riverbank, his dress shoes caked in mud.

Downstream, the water moved south, through mesquite thickets and vast emptiness. And as we floated on, something happened. Birdsong emerged everywhere. Crickets and coyotes joined the chorus. Even fish started jumping. How they got there so quickly, I can’t say. With each hour and day, the volume only grew. On our fourth day, the delta was blabbing on all cylinders, musical with hoots, howls, caws, buzzes, and splashes. Even the sopranos arrived, mosquitos who appeared in armies. After nearly two decades without water, they were hungry. Somehow, the wild critters arrived quickly, surprising us all. Clearly, ecological memory is strong.

For those few days, it seemed the Colorado River of old was back, romping around its old playground like an oversized kid.

Bird calls still fill the air to the north and south of the dry delta, a remnant of this once area teeming with life.

Years earlier, I had traveled this same stretch on a project documenting the entire river from source to sea. For me, the story was personal. My family, like many, has depended on the river’s flow to sustain hay crops on a ranch upstream in central Colorado. I was curious to see for myself what became of our irrigation water downstream; did it ever reach the sea?

I was excited to experience the delta ecosystem that conservationist Aldo Leopold described in 1922, full of cottonwoods, migratory birds, fish, even jaguars. “The river was nowhere and everywhere,” he wrote, “for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf. So he traveled them all, and so did we.”

Instead, writer Jonathan Waterman and I made it just a few miles before we were marooned in a Frappuccino pit of frothy muck, sewage, and garbage. We were forced to hoof the last 100 miles, shouldering our rafts and packs. The journey took over a week. We saw nothing but lifeless dirt and thirsty brush. And we heard less. There were no natural sounds at all—just dogs fighting at night and the nearby rumble of trucks throughout the day.

“The three of us…were the last three humans to float the Colorado River to the sea.

Ultimately, the pulse flow ended as quickly as it began. And the three of us who paddled that historic flow paddle were the last three humans to float the Colorado River to the sea. We were also the last to hear the delta brimming with life. I don’t say that proudly but with sadness. Ongoing restoration efforts continued in pockets for five years, and collaborative nonprofit efforts like Raise the River have continued the fight to return the Colorado to the sea. But as water has become an ever-scanter resource in the Southwest, the political will has dried up as well. Climate change has complicated matters, making the region hotter and drier. The delta is once again a river of sand. Today, even the voices of binational restoration efforts have become hushed. The reason hinges, as it has for centuries, on the belief that we are above nature, not part of it.

Having seen and heard that delta dead and quiet, as well as alive and full of chatter, I can only hope such natural sounds are not forgotten.

At the time, I thought I was done documenting the Colorado River. But perhaps it wasn’t done with me. In 2015 and 2016, my old friend Kevin Fedarko and I took, quite literally, a walk in the park. Ours was a 750-mile trek through Grand Canyon National Park, which was getting squeezed by a litany of commercial developments, from gondolas and waterski parks to helicopter ports and uranium mining. Our east-to-west trek took 71 days, stretched out over 14 months, a trail-less endurance test that consumed eight pairs of shoes and much of our body weight.

When the river runs dry, the delta must be crossed by foot, with the cracked landscape devoid of the natural sounds it once boasted.

The journey, which we chronicled for National Geographic, proved much harder than any assignment I’d ever had—physically, emotionally, logistically, and photographically. (I did all the work with one camera powered by a miniature solar panel.) Finding our route, locating water sources far above the river, and rationing food was all daunting and humbling. As a result, I quickly gained immense respect for the subtleties of that arid cathedral—and for the fact that more people have walked on the surface of the moon than hiked from end to end through our most iconic national park.

There were also profound lessons: friendship, simplicity, the endangered beauty of our night sky, the importance of Native voices, and the need for public engagement to protect these shared treasures.

But one lesson rose to the top. Silence—and all the rich, natural music within it—is just as valuable as those famous views, perhaps more so. And it is incredibly fragile.

Halfway through our journey, we met Dianna Uqualla, a Havasupai elder. Her people have lived inside the Grand Canyon for centuries‚ long before it was a national park. Clothed in a white deerskin dress and clutching an eagle wing, she said, “Listen to what the canyon has to say. It will tell what you need to know—if you listen to her.”

With each step, mile, and day we hiked west, I listened harder. And I started hearing new, more subtle sounds – ones that my camera couldn’t capture. The distant bleat of bighorn sheep, the rattle of a snake warning you before you get too close, the whoosh of a raven, the wonderful trickle of a spring, or my favorite: my morning alarm clock, the wisp of bat wings.

The more I listened, the more I saw.

Saltwater north and south of the delta still supports large numbers of shorebirds. Pelicans are among the 400 species of birds that stop over in the briny Salton Sea.

NATURAL SOUNDS thrive in silent places. But as we witness the Anthropocene—and with it the sixth mass extinction, with overwhelming global species loss—we are creating a new silence. It is a dead one. It is silence void of any natural sounds at all.

“In North America, one in four songbirds, roughly three billion, have disappeared in the last half century.

When forests fall, glaciers melt, and rivers dry, their inhabitants go with them. In North America, one in four songbirds, roughly three billion, have disappeared in the last half century, according to a study in the journal Science. And it is not just threatened species, but common feathered friends as well: Baltimore orioles, dark-eyed juncos, barn swallows. Their songs are less frequent. The same goes for amphibians. Forty percent of the amphibian species known to science face extinction, hushing our evening backyard lullabies. Perhaps if we learned to listen more to our neighbors—whether human or hooved, clawed, winged, or finned—we might not just see more, but protect the music of nature’s silence as well.

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