John Weisheit grew up with a love for the Colorado River and has worked as a river guide for more than four decades. In the year 2000, John co-founded Living Rivers, an advocacy group that seeks a path to restoring the ecology of the Southwest, balanced with meeting human needs.
I interviewed John in the cool shade of his backyard boathouse in Moab, Utah just after he returned from a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
“My passion for the Colorado river has been derived from seeing changes. Changes that I don’t think should be happening in one person’s lifetime. It turns out that those changes are now known as climate disruption, caused by the imbalance of burning too many carbon based fuels, which has loaded our atmosphere with greenhouse gases and is changing the circulation patterns of the ocean and the atmosphere in negative ways, especially here in Moab. In the United States, Grand County, where I live, has the second highest rate of warming. First place is in California. And then the next five or six counties are actually on the west side of Colorado, which are my neighbors. So this tells me that the hotspot in North America for climate change is the Colorado River basin.
If I was a first time visitor to the Colorado River, I would not recognize these changes, but I have [guided] professionally for four decades, and I’ve been on the Colorado River my entire life. So, I can see change very quickly and that’s why I became an activist. I think it’s important for your listeners to know is that I have standing as a river guide. I have income related to my work on the Colorado River and if I see harm or change, I can actually file lawsuits. And so I use that privilege that I’m very thankful for. As an nonprofit organization, a 501(c)3, I can fundraise and ask attorneys to represent me to change things in the federal and state courts. Most people know that nonprofit organizations are limited on how they can influence executive and legislative branches, but that’s not true for the judicial branch. So we take advantage of that.
The National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1970 when President Nixon was in charge of our executive branch. And the laws of the Environmental Policy Act include the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and actually citizens are allowed to use the court system in case the legislative branches and executive branches don’t do the right thing, especially as it related to the goal of what we call NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act, which is to live in harmony with nature. That’s the overriding principle of that law. And so when we’re not doing that, it’s important for citizens to reset the clock in a sense, and they can do that through the court system.
The Colorado River has actually what’s called the Salinity Control Act, which is part of the Clean Water Act, but it’s exclusive to the Colorado River system itself. And that is because the Colorado Plateau where I live and where we are doing this interview is comprised of marine sedimentary rocks. So there’s a high degree of salinity. There’s heavy metals like selenium and uranium. And there is also a lot of sediment. I think it’s like a 22 ton truck, every 15 seconds.
In fact, the Colorado River is probably the most aggressive erosive agent on the planet.”
“So that’s a lot of sediment, which is filling reservoirs. And that’s bad, because reservoirs are designed for three to four purposes. The number one is flood control. And the second most important is to regulate water, to store it so that you can take water into the winter time to grow winter crops, for example, as they do in California. But if sediment is occupying your free space in a reservoir, eventually it compromises flood control and it compromises storage of water.
So this is going into the planning and zoning problems that we have with dams. You know, society is supposed to be here forever. I mean, technically, we hope we’re a forever nation, but this infrastructure is not forever. It does come to an end, and actually, [we have] to solve the sediment problem, so that you can have flood control and you can still have storage and make hydroelectricity.
You know, you have to evacuate the reservoirs of sediment and we’re not doing that. And in fact, there’s not even a fee collection for this. When the day of reckoning arrives, there’s no plan, there’s no money, which means the future has to take care of these huge problems. And it’s going to be five to seven times more expensive than it costs to put that infrastructure in place in the first place. So there are huge looming problems.
Everybody right now in the Colorado River basin is just focused on this year. Like, are we gonna get through this year without completely draining the reservoir? But, compared to the long term projections, this is a minor problem. There are much bigger looming problems that are totally unattended to, and that is wrong.
Every homeowner knows that if they don’t pay their bills, if they don’t buy their food and buy their gas, that their household will crash. And supposedly we have some of the world’s best water managers and they can’t even balance the water that they have under their control and command. So I mean, it’s worse than having a bad teenager in your household. In my opinion, these water managers are infantile almost in their approaches to managing the resources for the Colorado River.
The path since 1902 Reclamation Act has been one of disaster. This is a social experiment that has failed. The reason why we know it is failing, is our reservoirs are about to empty out. This is not supposed to happen, and it did. There are seven states, two countries, and 40 million people. You would think that they would be more responsible about this resource.
So, you know, we’re on the brink. I mean, it could collapse this year and if we get one more dry, unproductive snow melt in 2023, it’s over with. We have two empty reservoirs and 40 million people that need about 14 million acre feet of water that is no longer provided…that isn’t even there. So, we’re not in a good place. This is not a happy place. This is not sustainable. This is not resilient. Who do we blame? The people who are in charge. Are they accepting this blame? They are not. So what am I supposed to do? You know, I can take ’em to court, but sometimes it takes four to five years even to get the oral arguments. There’s definitely a lot of dysfunction in government.
The other thing is, is the Colorado River is not the only river in the arid lands of the United States. The Rio Grande is actually in worse shape. The San Juan and the Sacramento Rivers, that’ll come next. This is an international problem because India, Pakistan, China, they’re following the Colorado River model. If we can’t fix it here, it means we can’t fix it anywhere. So it’s imperative that this river basin stop the nonsense and get this house in order.
The reality is, this is gonna crash. The train is going over the cliff, but I have to have hope. That’s what keeps me going, because I believe the human character does have resilience and does have sustainability. It’s kind of built into us. We just need to revive it. We need to wake it up. Maybe it takes a disaster to do that, but it’s gonna be a long haul. It’s gonna take a lot of work. It’s gonna be the hardest thing this country’s ever done, because we essentially have to start over.”
“We have an energy problem too. You know, our fossil fuels are a limited resource and that day is getting very close where we know it won’t be a dependable energy resource. So what’s the alternative? Do we do nuclear power? That’s a finite resource too. So again, sustainability and resilience is not built into our legislative process. So who’s to blame here? This is a legislative process. Why aren’t our legislator, our governors, our executive branches, making priority of sustainability and resilience? They continue to cram people into cities. They want to take water away from farmers. I mean, that’s basic nutrition is what you’re asking to be removed from the economy. Do we really want to do that?
That’s what I mean by there’s a lot of work to do. And so now we have the press. Is the press doing this? Are they just interested in what can be done in the next 24 hours and the most recent headline, or are they actually asking questions about long term longevity? This is a wake up call for everybody.
Distractions are intentionally put in front of us. And we grab onto ’em. It’s like a fish taking bait. So we need to think about what’s really important. And I’ll simplify this very quickly. There’s only two things that are important, and that’s water and energy. So that’s what we need to focus on. There is no doubt that we are running out of fossil fuels. There is no doubt that fossil fuels have created a climate crisis. So we should be focusing on our energy and water. If we did just those two things and put all the distractions aside, we would get some stuff done.
All I see is distractions. All I see is people wasting time and that is why we will fail. So we need to get rid of the distractions. We need to be real. We need to think. The distractions are nonsense, so we need to get real. And that’s simple. Just throw the distractions away. Do some house cleaning.
Being a river guide makes you attuned to two things. One is geography and [the other] is climate. You realize the limits of geography when you’re thirsty, when you’re hot, when you’re cold. Those are climate issues, too. [But] we’re kind of removed from that because our houses are climate controlled, our offices are climate controlled, our cars are climate controlled. We’re not really in tune with nature anymore. That is actually why we’re not prepared for the changes that we’re seeing in geography and climate. We’ve reached the limits of climate and geography. We’ve reached the limits of nature. We’re, we’re not working with nature anymore. We’re fighting nature. We’re trying to control it and you can’t do that. Nature’s in charge.
We have to work with nature. When you’re a river guy, you are forced to work around these things. When a hail storm hail storm or lightning [appears], what am I gonna do? I need to protect myself, my equipment and my customers. I have to think about scenario planning. I have to think about sustainability and resiliency on a river trip. If I can do it on a river trip, why can’t our legislators, our governors and our executive branches in federal government do it? I mean, really…is it that hard to do? Apparently it is.
I think the competitiveness of wanting to be a winner instead of being a good sport has kind of dominated our thought process. We want winning teams instead of just finding the joy of the game. It’s okay to lose. In fact, it’s okay to fail. In fact, you will be a better person because of your failures.
We’re afraid to learn the lessons of life, so I think our thinking on these matters is a bit skewed. Is it TV? Is it our books? Is it our choices? Yes. I think all the above.”
“But when you’re a wilderness guide, like I am, those distractions aren’t with you. You can see through these things a lot more clearer, and isn’t it true that the best prophets of our religions have always found their answers in the wilderness? Christ, Buddha and all the wonderful tribal religions that teach us to respect nature and how it works and how it operates.
Nature has breath. It has movement. I mean, water is not still, it’s in constant movement. It evaporates into vapor. It comes back to us as rain or snow or ice, and it’s moving. Even in aquifers, it’s moving. And so the earth—nature—is very much alive. Our nature has a breath, and what is our stethoscope? You can’t get it in a building or a car or in your home watching television. Maybe the governors and the senators and the congressmen should meet in a national park. Would that help them become more resilient and more sustainable? Maybe? I don’t know, but that’s my thought.
The goal of our organization is to be more balanced. I think the best way I can explain that is to work with nature and not try to conquer it. Nature is our friend. It is our ally. It gives us everything we need and it gives it to us free. We should have greater respect for the limits of nature. Instead of being so combative with it, controlling it with dams and stuff…you know, someday there’s not gonna be big dams in the world. We’re going to find out that concrete doesn’t last forever. Rebar rusts, reservoirs fill up with sediment. The day’s gonna come when we’re gonna find a different way to move water around. We’re kind of stuck in a hydraulic trap, and we need to free ourselves. And when we do free ourselves, actually we’ll prosper. And that means changing the way we work with nature, becoming partners with nature. That’s what our future has to be.
The Colorado River Compact is an imaginary document, full of errors. The document should be revised to reflect the truth. We have water laws that don’t reflect the truth.
The Colorado river can have severe droughts and severe floods. I mean, catastrophic floods. They don’t happen every 25 years, but they do happen. And in fact, some of the floods that have happened in the last 2000 years would take out the infrastructure of the Colorado River. We had some big snow melts in the 19th century, but there was no Colorado River infrastructure in the 19th century. So it just ran through through the canyons. Didn’t hurt anybody or anything. Because of dams, for example, we now occupy the flood plane. In a way dams can’t do flood control anymore because we’ve occupied the flood plane. So even if we had to discharge a huge amount of water, it’s still gonna cause property damage and loss of land and loss of an economy. I think I’ve said it—I’ll say it again—planning and zoning is our number one issue. It’s not made for this. It’s not made for a forever nation. This is a temporary nation until we’ve changed our planning and zoning.
We’ve become a very consumptive society. We have a huge amount of abundance, I would say because of energy from fossil fuels. When that energy—which has been abundant—comes to an end, we’re gonna have some serious changes that will need to be made. So are we prepared? We’re going to have to become less consumptive. Are we prepared for that? I would say no. The question is, do we make that a slow glide or an abrupt drop?”
“Recruiting is not hard to do. There’s two ways to recruit. One is through promotion and one is through attraction and we prefer attraction. Promotion is fake to me. It’s a con. It’s what advertisers do. You don’t really know if the product is good or not. So that’s why we believe in attraction. So what does that mean? When the phone rings, I’m going to answer that person’s question. I’m not gonna say no, and I’m not gonna send them to somebody else. So when they they say, okay, you have a problem. I’m here to help you. That’s my job. That’s my mission. Let’s think about how we can do this. Who are your allies? And I take the time to work with these people and help them learn to do what we are already doing.
This is how you build a constituency. 10,000 people working on their issues will get a lot more done than one silly organization that maybe has a $5 million budget. The most powerful person on this planet is the individual. So you need to have power in yourself and believe in yourself. And I’m here to encourage you. I can share with you. You have to be patient. You have to be tough and you can’t give up.
You do this all the time. You’ve made a commitment to your wife, a commitment to your children. Well, you can make a commitment to your community as well. Can you do it all? No, but you can, if you have allies. And you provide attractions to make them feel comfortable with you and your friends. And that’s how things get done.
People ask who’s the best company to do river trip. And my answer is, ‘They’re all fine.’ There’s no such thing as a bad outfitter, you know? It’s [all about], what are you going to do to make this trip you’re on as enjoyable as it can possibly be? You’re gonna meet strangers. Are you gonna be warm and friendly to ’em? Or are you gonna be combative? Are you gonna fill the trip with distractions and things that don’t matter? Or are you gonna talk about the basics? And, you know, you can have a bad river trip with the best outfitter in the world, but how about let’s just be the best customer or best client to make the best river trip with. In other words, I would say the best river trip is the river trip you are on now. What are you gonna do to make it the best river trip? Are you gonna contribute? Are you gonna be a part of it?
I mean, you can turn things around. River guides are ambassadors. I can see when there’s a problem over there. Rather than let it fester and get bigger, I intervene very kindly and I solve the problem. It goes away and it never comes back, you know? That’s leadership. But we all have these issues. I didn’t have it on the first year as a river guide, but by year five, I developed leadership skills. I didn’t go to leadership school to learn this. We all have this ability. We just need to work on it, nurture it. And, like I said, the individual is the most powerful person on the planet. We all have this ability, We just need to use it.
It’s fun. Life, and being engaged and enjoying people and enjoying problems, it’s fun. It is. You just need to do it, you know? I have more friends than I’ve ever had before. My life is full of phone calls and answering questions from students and reporters. I feel very alive for taking this on and it’s fun. I’m having a blast. So if you’re depressed, be an activist. Don’t get mad. Get even. Give it back to ’em. If people make you unhappy, find a way to bring joy into the system. It’s hard work. It takes a lot of patience. But it’s worth it.”
-Have you witnessed changes in nature that were driven by climate change?
-What are some of the tools we have at our disposal as individuals to protect the environment?
-What are the distractions that demand our attention and occupy our time? How do you resist them?
-Have you experienced a clarity of vision while in the wilderness?
-How can we learn to work in harmony with nature instead of in opposition to it?
-Are there ways you have tried to consume less? Have you been successful?
-John says, “The most powerful person on this planet is the individual.” Do you agree?
-Have you found joy in the role of an activist? What was the issue you worked on and why?