Peter McBride on chasing the great waterways of America and Asia

Journalist, photographer and filmmaker Peter McBride gave the keynote address at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Though Peter McBride has worked in more than 60 countries, his heart is in Colorado.

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The journalist, photographer, filmmaker, conservationist and, above all, adventurer, lately has trained his talents on water. His documentary, “Chasing Water,” following on his book, “The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict,” won more than 20 film festival awards. In it, McBride traces the river’s path from its source, but not quite to the sea — the last portion of the journey was overland, as that defining feature of the American West now ends with a whimper in the desert.

His next project will take him to another great waterway: the Ganges River, which much of South Asia relies on for irrigation, transportation and even spirituality.

McBride spoke at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast on Aug. 1 at the Salt Lake City Downtown Marriott at City Creek during Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013.

How did you get your start as an adventurer and photographer?
Honestly, I blame my folks. They played a large role in planting a wanderlust bug in my belly. They used to drag our family on remote trips every five years or so. As a result, I have many memories, starting from age 6 onward, of poorly planned outings, river trips and climbs involving lightning storms, dehydration, and a few epic scrambles (all ended safely, of course; my dad kept safety near the top of the list). Those adventures led to a love of the outdoors and a passion for remote regions. I think that ultimately led me to photography and storytelling because I wanted to return with something to share — an artifact for the memory bank or a snippet to share of what I saw or learned.

How did your book, “The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict,” and documentary, “Chasing Water,” come to be?
It actually started as a National Geographic Adventure magazine story in which I was assigned to shadow Jon Waterman on his source-to-sea paddle of the Colorado River. After working abroad in some 60 countries, I had been yearning to do something closer to home and closer to my heart. Once I dug into the story with Jon, I realized it was a much larger story. It needed attention, so I recruited/ hired my father, John, for another “family outing” since he is a very good bush pilot. What started as a two-week assignment turned into a two-year-plus quest … by boat, foot and plane … chasing our family’s irrigation water from Colorado all the way the sea. We walked the last dry 100 miles.

What projects are on the horizon, and how did you move from the Colorado River to topics farther afield?

I am doing a source-to-sea project on the Ganges River this fall, much like my Colorado River project. After seeing the challenging plight of water in the West firsthand, I started thinking more about water issues and realized that water scarcity, combined with a changing climate, is one of the significant issues of my lifetime and will be for my kids (if I ever am lucky enough to have any — my river stuff has gotten in the way, I guess). So I have started looking at changing watersheds abroad and once you dip below the surface, the issues are quite staggering and widespread — throughout the world, from the Andes to Africa to the Ganges and beyond.

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When conservation is in conflict with a local population’s survival, as seems to be the case in some parts of the world you’ve worked, how do you educate and mitigate damage from farming or ranching? 

I recently just returned from Rwanda doing a project with the British company Craghoppers. They wanted to focus a lens on the gorilla issue there, which is so symbolic of conservation’s dilemma. Currently, the gorilla story is positive, but it is easy for some to see the mountain gorillas and their habitat as a hindrance to their economic success — no logging in the national park, and could be painted as people v. gorillas. But the reality is that if done properly, conservation leads to more economic vitality in the long run for the human population. The gorilla model has become that example. If the gorillas are kept alive, they attract business year after year via tourism. If they are poached of their forest is logged, the economic benefit in comparison is tiny when projected over time. The same holds true with many issues around conservation — including agriculture. Having grown up on an operating cattle ranch, it is easy to see how long-term land practices can produce more economic gain than any short-term quick fixes ever do. No bull.

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Can you give an example of one of the more hopeful conservation stories unfolding in the U.S. right now?
There are quite a few but one exciting one is the recent new treaty between Mexico and U.S. to bring water back to the Colorado River Delta, called Minute 319. The Colorado River stopped reaching the sea completely in the late ’90s and this new, quite progressive agreement is expected to help water managers, agricultural users and even environmentalists use the last remains of that mighty river a bit more wisely with agreements to share in excess and shortage, bi-national storage and allocated delta flows. With a little luck, time and more good work, we might see the American Nile get closer to kissing the Sea of Cortez once again. I’d like to see that.

Where do you think the outdoor community’s responsibility lies when it comes to protecting America’s — or the world’s — rivers, lakes and streams?
The outdoor community has a huge voice actually in the fate of waterways because we use them and love them. Recreation is a giant economic engine because we like beautiful places to play in. Example: The Colorado River brings in $26 billion a year in recreation according to a recent independent study. That is more than Progressive Insurance or US Airways makes. But that figure depends on a river flowing, functioning river for all our activities: boating, rafting, fishing, rapid surfing, picnicking, etc. So I think it is important for the outdoor community to speak up for the playgrounds they use, love and hopefully respect because it actually makes quite a difference. Many view rivers and watersheds as giant potential plumbing systems with no value beyond. In my work, I have many with that perspective. But in many cases, the outdoor enthusiast community is often the only voice standing up for rivers and lakes and streams. Of course, that voice isn’t always perfectly unified, but it is better than no voice at all.

--Megan Mulligan

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