The second scariest moment in Kathleen Velo's long photographic odyssey along the Colorado River happened high in the Rocky Mountains.
Velo had plunged into the river in knee-high boots at La Poudre Pass at night to document the Colorado's pristine waters at the point where the river begins.
"I was afraid of bears—grizzly bears," she says, "and it was really cold."
She was even more unnerved at Morelos Dam in Arizona, near where the depleted river reaches Mexico and more than a thousand miles away from the pass. The Border Patrol had told the photographer and her assistant, Chip Hedgcock, that the crossing there was rife with drug smugglers.
"They said it was dangerous and that they couldn't officially protect us," the photographer says. "I was really scared."
It didn't help that Velo can work only at night to make her photograms: pictures created without benefit of a camera. The photosensitive paper she uses "has to be handled in total darkness."
Warnings notwithstanding, Velo went ahead and waded into the nighttime river, just as she had in the Rockies. She never did see any smugglers, nor any migrants, and a friendly Border Patrol agent actually parked nearby while she worked in the shallow water. The Border Patrol, she adds, didn't ever inquire into her peculiar activities.
If they were curious, those agents could get an idea of her work at "Water Flow," a small exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art that shows the fruits of Velo's nocturnal labors in the river. The large-scale color prints attest to the terrible beauty of the Colorado's waters—its brilliant colors ranging from ice blue in the Rockies to sickly green at the Imperial Dam in California.
At the headwaters, Velo says, the water is clear as the water in a well-tended swimming pool. It gets polluted along its 1,450-mile route, picking up detritus from mines and agriculture and human settlements, before petering out in Mexico.
"The pictures are beautiful," Velo says, "but they're made from something fragile, dangerous and toxic."
Bottled water samples displayed with each photo document the river's degradation. The water taken at La Poudre is pristine, with the first sign of gross brown gunk is in the bottom of the bottle from Dewey, Utah. (The accompanying Dewey photo pictures murky water that's a distasteful whitish green, marred by floating dark specks.) By the time the river gets to the Hoover Dam, Velo's posted data shows that it's infected with coliform bacteria.
"The headwaters have not changed," Velo says. "It's what happens t so the water when it travels."
The Colorado is a contested river whose waters are diverted to seven states that battle over every drop. Scientists fear for its future, with some specialists estimating that by the year 2050, the river will be unable to support the 30 million people who now depend on it. It has already virtually disappeared in Mexico, south of Yuma.
In Velo's last picture, taken at St. Luis Colorado, Mexico, the little water that remains is an anemic pale blue.
Velo's work doesn't address the impending crisis that could deprive much of the burgeoning Southwest of its drinking water. Instead, she concentrated primarily on the declining quality of the water.
To get the underwater images, Velo and Hedgcock logged 14,000 miles over two years, traveling to no fewer than 15 locations from the beginning to almost the end of the stressed river. (They did not reach the Colorado Delta in Mexico.)
The work was sometimes dangerous, and not only because of possible bears or narcos. Occasionally, the wind was so strong or the waters so rough that Velo had to tether herself to a nearby tree for safety. She needed to stay alert to impending storms and the possibility of flash floods.
The photographer, who taught at Palo Verde High School in Tucson for two decades, had to walk into the current carrying the heavy steel cases that held her paper. Out in the river, in the dark, she'd take a sheet of the paper out and submerge it four or six inches underwater, wearing gloves "if the water looked funky." Hedgcock, safe on the shore, would flash a light to expose the paper, then the clock was ticking.
"I needed to take the paper out of the plates in 30 or 40 minutes," she says, "and dry it out." Sometimes she'd be staying in a cheap motel, where she'd turn the bathroom into a darkroom ahead of time by taping black plastic over the windows. On one trip, she rented a utility van and blacked out the back so the pictures could develop there safely. On still another occasion, she and Hedgcock commandeered the bathroom of a campground late at night, after first alerting their puzzled fellow campers. Luckily, Velo joked, campers tend to go to bed early.
Velo first seized on the idea of her massive project by pondering the state of Tucson's water. The Old Pueblo's supply is a mix of local ground water and Colorado River water sent southward via the Central Arizona Project (CAP). She got a New Works grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council to make photograms of the water in the recharge basins in Avra Valley, northwest of the city.
"The recharged water is brown and silty," Velo says. "That project made me think about the quality of the Colorado River."
An Arizona Commission on the Arts grant paid for her to photograph sites all over the state; she concentrated especially on the water near Arizona's six major dams. Finally, she used an Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign to pay for a trip covering nearly the entire length of the Colorado.
"Part of the reason I wanted to do this project," she says, "is that we're so unaware of this river. We think it's going to be there forever. I want to make people think about what's in the water and how we're using and abusing the river."