Soul Is Waterproof: Adventure Swimming On Green River In History's Lowest Flows

Soul Is Waterproof: Adventure Swimming On Green River In History’s Lowest Flows

Courtesy of Matthew Moseley, Green River through Canyonlands, Utah.

Matthew Moseley, author and communications strategist, swims long distances down rivers, across lakes, and in seas. He is the protagonist of the documentary film Dancing In The Water, a nominee of the 2014 World Open Water Swimming Offering of the Year. He talked about his latest marathon swim, a swimming descent downriver of the Green River through Canyonlands in Utah on June 27th. With the lowest river flows in history, he swam 63.7 km in 14 hours 36 minutes.

My right arm was painted blue (water), my left was red (fire) and my face was white. The zinc oxide covered by body for protection from the sun for the long journey. I felt like a creature of the water, ready for war.

I stood on the sandy river bank at Mineral Bottom in Canyonlands in the early morning darkness ready to do the first ever swim on the Green River for 52 miles to the confluence with the Colorado River.  After the swimming portion, our team of 16 people and five rafts would run the rapids of Cataract Canyon.

As we started planning this expedition with American Rivers four years ago, no one could have predicted the Green River would be at it lowest flows ever in recorded history.  

What should have been 5-6,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) was about 1,800 cfs. A trickle of what it should be. On many strokes my hand scraped bottom. Other times I was forced to walk across sandbars and rock gardens because it was impossible to swim.

The Grand Canyon gets all the glory, but Cataract Canyon is the most dynamic place on the whole Colorado River basin system. All the water of the west converges for about 41 glorious miles before it is absorbed into Lake Powell.

Part of our team were river legends Mike Dehoff and Meg Flynn, who are a part of the Returning Rapids Project. They showed us where old features of the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon are being revealed as Lake Powell recedes. They are matching old photographs from river runners with rapids that are coming back to life after the sediment washes away. They are witnessing the old river coming back.

One of the notable features now is the 150-foot high walls of sediment where the river has cut through. A massively incredible amount of mud and muck.

America’s most prolific dam builder, Floyd Dominy, the former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, who built Glen Canyon dam, famously said that sediment would never be a problem. He also said that He didn’t choose dam sites. God chose dam sites.

If Dominy wanted a legacy, he got it. River runners and others now refer to the obnoxious layer of mud sediment where invasive species like tamerisk thrive, as the Dominy Fecal Formation.

While the swim down the Green River was a first, more importantly, our expedition was a vessel to tell the story of what is happening to water in the West. A significant part of the American west has been in a severe drought for over 20 years. Perhaps this is the new normal? Some scientists are calling it the “acidification” of the west.

Our first Cataract Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell always warned that the west was a hostile place because of the lack of water and unsuitable for development. But here we are starring the barrel of the very first “call” on the Colorado River. Where upper basin states such as Colorado, will be forced to send water downstream and curtail their own use.

While the water apocalypse looms, fountains flow in Las Vegas and lawns flourish. Hedge funds have started procuring water rights through “buy and dry” of old ranches.

Lake Powell is dangerously nearing “deadpool” where the water level is too low for the dam to operate. This matters because over 40 million people depend upon the Colorado River Basin.

In the end, with darkness coming on, there simply wasn’t the flow, light or the time to keep swimming to the confluence with the Colorado River, 12 miles away. We had a safety plan and we stuck to it.

On Sunday, June 27th, I did the first-ever recorded swim on the Green River through Canyonlands for 40 miles in 14 hours in 32 minutes.

While swimming long distances, the rivers, lakes and oceans tell you their stories. Their taste and feel. Where they come from and where they are going. I saw firsthand what happens when the river starts dying. I know personally how the fish feels when it gets washed out.

Leonardo da Vinci thought of rivers and water as the veins of planet earth, the channels that nourish the flora and fauna of our existence. In much the same way as humans must have a steady flow of blood to keep living, flowing water is the key to our existence on earth.

As Matt Rice from American Rivers says, “People can’t live where fish can’t swim.”

Moseley is a communication strategist, author and adventure swimmer who lives in Boulder, Colorado. He is the co-chair of the Colorado River Basin Council for American Rivers. His most recent book is Ignition: Superior Communication Strategies for Creating Stronger Connections by Routledge Publishing.

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Steven Munatones