Colorado – The dying River


Whether it be managers of golf courses in Las Vegas or fishermen on the Mexican border – all are dependent on the water carried by the Colorado River, from the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California. Photographer Jonas Kako spent over six weeks documenting life along the course of the river – meeting numerous protagonists, learning about agriculture in the desert and the water requirements of big cities. Even though his project is not yet complete, it already offers comprehensive insight into people’s consumer habits.

How did you get into photography?
My father used to subscribe to GEO Magazine, and I was always looking at the reportages from around the world, and dreaming of one day travelling the planet as a photographer. I bought my first camera with my confirmation money, and began taking pictures of landscapes. After I finished school, I journeyed through India for three months, trying out reportage photography for the first time. I used those pictures to apply to study Photojournalism with Rolf Nobel in Hanover, and had the good fortune of being accepted.

How did you come to begin this very comprehensive project? Is there a reason you opted, specifically, for the Colorado River?
I’ve been dealing photographically with the climate crisis for a long time. It started in 2018 with a report about an island threatened by rising sea levels – the Isle de Jean Charles, off the coast of Louisiana. The inhabitants are the first official climate refugees in the USA, and are gradually being relocated by the government. I found it fascinating that some of the island’s inhabitants are climate change deniers, even though it threatens them so directly. While doing research for a new project, I stumbled across the Colorado River situation, and was shocked to read that it might dry out completely in the coming years. 40 million people are dependent upon its waters, so you would think that everything possible would be done to stop it from drying out.

How did you prepare yourself?
The planning began with many hours of research on the computer. I’d come across the subject, by chance, in The New York Times; there were no articles about it in Europe at the time. In the USA, the matter is well known; so there were many reports that helped me find places I wanted to visit, where I could do further research. I made myself a list of people, things and places that could be thematically connected and that referred to issues along the Colorado. I absolutely wanted to talk with cattle farmers; see Lake Mead; and visit the indigenous Cucapá people in northern Mexico, who can barely fish any longer.

Where did the journey begin, and where did it end?
After two trips, I’ve travelled along the river twice, from its source in the snow-covered Rocky Mountains to the former delta in Mexico. It meant countless kilometres through deserts devoid of people, through the Rockies, and following the coast of San Felipe. Sometimes I had a concrete goal for the day, but I often just let the landscape guide me. Then, in the evenings, I’d look for a place from where I could photograph the sunrise next morning.

How was working with the Leica SL2?
Working with the SL2 was very intuitive. The thing that impressed me was the intensity of the colours the camera picks up. That was particularly good for landscape photography.

How did you meet your numerous protagonists along the course of the river? What impression did they give you?
I contacted some of the protagonists in advance, as in the case of Brian Domonkos, for example. He is Colorado’s Snow Survey Supervisor, and he took me along when he went to investigate the amount of snow in the Rockies. They have been measuring it every year for nearly 50 years, and it shows a clearly decreasing trend. It’s one of the main reasons why the Colorado River is dwindling.
Great luck and the warmth and openness of people were responsible for my meeting other protagonists. For example, I’d learnt that in the Navajo Reservation there are many households without running water; and that, because of the drought, water has to be trucked in – for their sheep and cows, as well. I asked the cashier at a local supermarket for contacts, and she directed me to Leonard. That very same afternoon I was sitting in a traditional Navajo sweat lodge!

What moved you the most? What will you undoubtedly remember?
My time with the Cucapá, in the north of Mexico, was the most intense time of the trip. I was made incredibly welcome. I was allowed to go fishing with Antonia and Leticia, and their stories of the times when the Colorado still flowed were very impressive. For the Cucapá (meaning ‘people of the river’), the river is not just a recreational area, as it is for many Americans – rather, it is a fundamental part of their culture and livelihood. Without the river, and a stable income through fishing, many of the younger people are moving away. This means that the culture of these people is gradually dying, along with the river.

Is there still any hope for the region? What could be done to put an end to the situation?
I do believe there is still hope. There are many small efforts being made to save the river. Even Las Vegas is now taking water preserving measures; on the whole, a lot of water is recycled and fed back into the river. However, the issue is often only discussed as coming from the drought, and not from climate change. Many people see it only as a local problem, and are under the impression that better times will return, without having to change anything. The drying out, however, is a consequence of the climate crisis, and can only be solved globally. It’s up to all of us if we want to solve it.

Born in 1992, Jonas Kako studied Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the University of Applied Science and Arts in Hanover. For some years now, his photographic work has dealt with the climate crisis and its impact on people and nature. He has been working as a freelance photographer for the Weser-Kurier in Bremen since 2017. His stories have appeared in Volkskrant, Stern and National Geographic among others. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.

A comprehensive portfolio is included in the LFI magazine 7/2022.

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