Izzy Collett is the co-founder and owner of Desert Adventures, an outfitter in Boulder City, Nevada that takes clients on outdoor adventures. With more than 20 years of paddling experience, Izzy is a searcher, always looking for new answers.
“I’m an outdoors person, more specifically a river person. Almost everything about my life somehow involves water. We operate on Lake Mead. We do paddling classes, we do guided tours, we rent boats.
A lot of people don’t realize that the allotment and the allocation of water in the [Colorado River] basin supports seven Western states and also Mexico. We have to let across the border 1.5 million acre feet to Mexico. It’s required of the United States. And at the time when the allocations were made, they were made in extremely high seasons of water. So high snow melt, just high water years. It was kind of in the beginning of where we were taking data from the river and I don’t think people knew when they were collecting that data, that it was coming from high water years.
It was over allocated to begin with. So, that’s one problem. Drought is another problem that adds to the low water levels. Population growth is probably one of the most added problems. It’s such a complicated thing because it’s not like, “Don’t have fountains in Vegas” and it’ll fix the river. It’s not as clear cut as that. We see this with our guests. A lot of times they’ll come and they’ll go on a trip and they think it’s as easy as just turning off the fountains at Bellagio and suddenly the river will get better. Don’t have so many golf courses. There’s actually a lot of science that goes into golf courses, in preventing evaporation and the types of grass.
The fountains have the same thing. They have water saving strategies to prevent evaporation and things like that. So if you look at water use and where it’s going, probably the biggest use of the water levels is residential. People leaving the water running while they’re brushing their teeth, taking showers that are too long, having pools, having grass in the desert,
We just keep growing. John Wesley Powell, in his foresight, said when he got here that the desert can only sustain so much life. If you look at plant life in the desert, it’s sparse and you think there’s nothing there. But the reason it’s like that—the reason it’s sparse and so scattered—is because those plants are spacing themselves so that they can survive. They’re not taking up someone else’s water, they’re spacing themselves far enough away that all the plants can survive. And he said, the west can’t support this type of growth that we’re having now.
I try to educate myself on the history of explorers in this area and people that have traveled the Grand Canyon and the river. I mean, all of our water that we use here as a business and also just as people living in the desert comes from the upper basin. So I feel like it’s important to study those things. Joseph Christmas Ives came here and he said something to the effect of, “This place is horrible. No one’s ever gonna come here. This place will never be visited again by any man.” So, I don’t think he had it quite right. Extreme growth expansion in the west adds to the problem. And I don’t know why we keep expanding. We know we have a water problem. It’s in the news all the time.
The changes I’ve noticed on the lake, the bathtub ring, obviously. When I first moved here, I got my scuba certification at a little place called the Boulder Islands. It was kind of far to get there. We had to take a motorboat. Of course we had all of our scuba equipment and part of our test was to dive down a hundred feet and find what locals call the batch plant. It’s actually an aggregate plant. When they were building the dam, [it’s] where the aggregate was mixed.
So I had to dive down to get my certification a hundred feet to that plant. And now, if you kayak to that island—which is very popular place to kayak—you have to get out of your boat and hike up to the batch plant. It’s very much above water.
So a lot of islands have popped up around there, that weren’t exposed before. Rocks are getting exposed. We can easily maneuver around those, but motor boats are having a problem with them.
I don’t think that a lot of people notice it on their own. Maybe they notice it, but they don’t understand what it is. Our guides joke around like, “Oh yeah, that’s the line where we drain the drain the lake once a year and we paint it.” People laugh about it, but I don’t think people really understand what the bathtub ring is and why it’s there.
I don’t think people understand water consumption and like I said before, it’s a very complex issue. Water was allocated in all the seven basin states and Mexico. The way that it is handled with farmers, it’s use it or lose it. So there’s water waste because if they don’t use all the water they have from one year, then they lose it the next year.
The system isn’t designed for conservation. It’s over allocated to begin with and there’s penalties for not using your water. So there needs to be some adjustments in the system. And there’s arguments all the time about water and who it belongs to and who has the right to take it and whose water it is.
People are trying to sustain big cities by going up into the water tables of farming communities, and tapping into that water and taking it. It’s a really complex issue. It’s just not as easy as saying, “Don’t have golf courses in Vegas.” It’s just not that easy.
Our guides spend a lot of time…a giant portion of our trips are about education and awareness and advocacy for the river and conservation. We also talk about history and do fun things, but we’re trying to educate people as to, “Hey, this is an issue that affects the whole Western United States.”
A few years ago I was involved with this group that was trying to bring awareness to business use of water and recreational use of water, which doesn’t really have a voice at the table. Most of the voices are for agriculture or mining. So recreational use doesn’t really have a big voice at the table. I was involved with this group and we went from here down to Mexico and we visited Los Algodones and we saw where the river goes after that. And literally at Morelos Dam at the border of the United States of Mexico, if you look across the other side of the dam, there’s no water. Literally like a little trickle, where some water leaks out and made a puddle. A small, small puddle with some reeds. And the rest of the Colorado River bed is just dry. All that water stops at the border. The Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. These canals divert it and it goes to Mexico.
And we also went to the river delta where the Colorado River used to go. There was a giant lagoon of green vegetation, a giant place for birds. It was a lush ecosystem and it’s not there anymore. It literally is just sand. It’s just gone because there’s no water. We saw it from the plane. It’s miles and miles and miles of sand.
[Wilderness is viewed] kind of like a trophy. You get your selfie and you’re able to post it. You look all grand and cool. I’m not against selfies. I’ve taken selfies too. It’s fun. I think the responsibility comes into play with social media, with tagging exact places, the exact coordinates, telling everybody where everything is. It leads to problems with people not really knowing the proper skills to be in that area. They just have seen that someone posted it and they’re like, “Oh, I want go do that.” And they’re maybe not prepared. They’re maybe not prepared with the proper equipment, the proper tools, the proper knowledge, the proper education.
I have a friend in Utah and he lives and works in a very remote location in Utah. It’s not highly known or traveled and it’s beautiful. And he explained it to me like this. “When you wanted to go do stuff outside, if you found a cool place and you wanted to take someone there, you vetted them personally. Do they have the skills to hike this far? Do they know how to use ropes or am I gonna have to teach them? Are they aware of heat exhaustion and how to handle it and how to manage their blood sugar level on their own? Do I have to pay attention for that? Do I have to tell them the gear to bring, or do they already have the gear? Do they have to go buy it?”
So you used to be able to vet people and then, how are they with their leave no trace skills? How are they with their respect for the environment and the resource? Are they the kind of person that’s gonna go there and try to pick off petroglyphs and tag stuff with spray paint, or are they the kind of person that’s gonna be very respectful of the area? And so you used to be able to vet people and then if you thought they were okay to take some place, you would take them. And if you didn’t, you wouldn’t invite them, and the place would stay kind of sacred. You wouldn’t take someone there that didn’t know how to be behave properly in that area.
Nowadays with social media, we’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of tourism, the amount of new outfitters. Sometimes there’s so many people at the water’s edge that we can’t even access the water. There’s just hundreds and hundreds of boats lined up at the access point. You can’t even get in. It is just a very different experience to try and go into a wilderness area and have that many people.
During the pandemic, outdoor recreation just boomed. It was huge for our industry. So what has resulted is people who aren’t really very prepared, venturing out into places that they’ve seen online in an Instagram post or a Facebook post. And they’ve seen the photo and where it is. And they go to those places and they get themselves in trouble because they’re not ready. They’re not educated, they’re not prepared. They don’t know the dangers. They don’t know how to deal with the dangers. They don’t know the consequences of not having the right equipment.
Just today I had one of our guides who was out there on an overnight trip, call me from his sat phone and say, “I’m here helping a hiker that’s not with our group. I was down here with my group and somebody came and got me because they saw I had a guide shirt on, they came and got me and asked me if I could help.”
It was a family that shouldn’t have been down there. It’s hot today. It’s probably the warmest day we’ve had this year and they were down there with a bunch of kids that were under three years old and they didn’t have any water and it’s a three mile uphill trek back out of the desert and they were already experiencing signs of heat exhaustion with young, young kids. Is that a good decision with that age of children to take them into a place like that?
Unprepared. I’m not trying to be mean or hurtful to those people. I’m all for access. I just think that if you truly care about yourself and you truly care about the people you’re with and the environment, you should be prepared.
There’s some things that as an outdoor person, you really need to be respectful of. I wouldn’t take a bunch of people rafting with me in the Grand Canyon on a personal trip if they were scared of the water and they didn’t know how to swim. It would be a liability to that person.
Some people don’t want to use proper bathroom etiquette in the outdoors. What we’re seeing a lot in the canyon is what we jokingly refer to as ground poops. Where people just use the bathroom on the ground and leave it. And they don’t clean up after themselves and that’s not proper etiquette. They probably don’t even know proper etiquette, or if they do, they just are disregarding it.
We’ve seen a lot of trash. The amount of litter is so much. I got a text last night from one of my guides. A giant giant, huge—it’s on a canyon wall—graffiti. And it just says a name of someone, “this person lives.” And I’m not going to say his name—the person that wrote it—because I don’t think they deserve the attention. But it’s giant and it shouldn’t be there. It’s happening at all of the national parks.
So it’s a hard problem. It’s not easy. It’s frustrating for us as a company that truly cares and educates our guides. Our guides go through a giant amount of training and a lot of it is safety related, but some of it is narration related and interpretive information and advocacy for the resource and protecting the environment. And so they love it. They love where they work and when they’re out there and they see these things, it’s frustrating. It’s hard.
When we have one-on-one conversations with people about the issues, they’re very open to receiving the information we’re giving them. Once they leave us, they might think about it and implement it in their own lives, whether they’re from the Western United States or back from the Eastern seaboard. I don’t know if they implement it, but I think that we definitely open people’s eyes. I think that the hope is that they’re open to receiving a different way of thinking about water and water conservation as a whole.
The media sensationalizes the drought. I would like to see them talk about ways that we can maybe step into conservation more and be open to conservation in our homes and things that we do at restaurants. It’s tiny little things, but if everyone does it, it truly becomes part of your way of living.
The biggest agricultural use of water is alfalfa, and why do we grow alfalfa? We grow it to feed cattle. So we can eat beef. So it’s just something to think about. I like beef, I’m a meat eater. I eat steak, but I choose to try and limit it so that it’s not everywhere in my life.
Another thing is, in your home, just be aware of your water usage. If you’re brushing your teeth, wet your toothbrush and then turn the water off. If you’re washing dishes, fill the sink and then don’t leave the water running. It’s amazing how much water piles up if you just leave it running. Use low flow faucets, low flow appliances.
When we do river trips, there’s places where we have to carry our water because the water quality is silty. It’ll clog up a pump immediately. We think about that all the time. We think about how we have to carry this big, huge pail of water up this giant bank. You truly think about your water usage and the quantity that you have available and how you’re using it.
I don’t think anybody even realizes it. You just turn the faucet on and it’s there.
Lawn and landscape. Take the turf out and replace it with native things. It’s called xeriscaping.
And you don’t need to water the entire area. Drip systems are very effective.
I think just being more aware, just learning, growing as a person…What do you feel comfortable doing to help with the solution instead of add to a problem? That would be probably the most helpful thing if people could like wrap themselves around that idea. Just think about what you could do. Sometimes it’s hard for people to do all of those things. I don’t think I could be a vegetarian, but I could definitely eat less beef. So think about what you can do to help and add to a solution rather than contribute to the problem.
Water is a finite resource. It’s not an unlimited supply. We’re on this little ball in the universe and we only have what we have and if we destroy it, we’ll destroy ourselves.”
-Do you turn the water off as you brush your teeth?
-Do you use drip irrigation for your landscaping?
-Do you have low flow faucets in your home?
-Do you know how many gallons of water you use in a typical day?
-Do you have plumbing leaks that need attention?
-Have you ever run out of water?
-Where are the places you can make a difference?