Downstream: Death of the Mighty Colorado

Brian Frank’s award-winning photo essay chronicles the effects of overuse and pollution on the Colorado River.

Brian Frank  Downstream
The Cerro Prieto power plant in Sonora allegedly pollutes a large swath of the Colorado in Mexico. Courtesy Brian L. Frank/Redux.

The once-indomitable Colorado River has been reduced to a trickle of its former self, thanks to increased demand for water and power in the American Southwest. Photographer Brian Frank spent years documenting the decline of the Colorado and the changes taking place along its banks, culminating in “Downstream: Death of the Mighty Colorado,” a photo essay that earned him the 2010 Global Vision Award. Last week Frank spoke with Failure about the project and the photos, all 28 of which can be viewed via the link below.

What inspired you to pursue this subject?
It started when I was in northern Mexico teaching a photojournalism workshop to kids in a community there. I was spending a lot of time near a town called San Luis. And as you’re driving into town you cross over where the river used to be. You see this empty trough and imagine how the area once was. I love the region and love spending time with the people there, and I imagined them living their lives so much more robustly if they had their water.

Why is the Colorado dying?
There are a lot of reasons: Overuse on the U.S. side; climate change; agriculture in the Imperial Valley, where the last of the water gets siphoned off before it crosses the border. There are also large swaths that are polluted. For instance, in Mexico the last bit of water that remains is being polluted by power plants that ship power north to the U.S.

The photographs were taken at a lot of different places. Is there a common thread among them?
I was looking for a common thread of struggle on the Mexican side and wealth on the U.S. side. But the common thread ended up being struggle on both sides. I came across so many different scenes in the U.S. where people were fighting just as hard day-to-day as they were in Mexico. There are a lot of places in the American Southwest where people are feeling the effects just like their neighbors to the south.

What do you hope will come out of people seeing these pictures?
All that I can do is share the work and create some kind of awareness. I don’t know what the answer is to this huge, complex problem. But the real travesty—to me—is polluting what’s left of this water. To me that is something that we can tackle, and I hope that people think about that when they turn on their lights in Los Angeles.

Downstream: Death of the Mighty Colorado