The Green River flows 730 miles from Wyoming to Utah—through ranches, cities, Native American reservations, endangered fish habitats, and sought-after whitewater. According to Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West, a new book that hit shelves on March 22, the Green River supplies water to 40 million people. The legislation that governs how the Green is used is deeply complex and fraught with politics.
So when Heather Hansman set out to write Downriver, a book about water rights on the Green River, she knew she was signing up for a challenge. Quickly, she realized the task would demand that she see the whole river herself—as she says, from a “bank level.” In May 2016, Hansman embarked on a three-month-long paddle that took her from the Green’s headwaters in Wyoming all the way downriver to its confluence with the Colorado River.
Hansman is a 35-year-old writer and journalist based in Seattle. She was once a river raft guide, which she credits for kickstarting her passion for water in the West. Her rafting days also gave her the know-how to paddle the Green. During the trip, she often had company. Friends and family joined her for certain sections. But for the most part, Hansman paddled the Green solo.
Along the way, she met ranchers whose families have worked their land for generations and government employees who bridge the divide between the dense legalities outlining water policy and the rural communities who are anxious the river will dry up. She ran rapids and toured colossal dams. She slept on the river’s edge, and at the end of the day typed notes on an iPad that she stored in a waterproof bag. During one stretch, she spent nine days without seeing another person.
Hansman’s book Downriver, published this month by the University of Chicago, is a blend of personal narrative, water policy research and on-the-ground reporting in the rural West. It’s about her growing comfort with solitude, the technicalities that define a water right, and the people she met along the way. But it’s also a testament to how recreation can serve as a door to learning and an opportunity to engage with big issues that paddlers—and all outdoorspeople, including climbers, skiers, hikers, surfers—tend to be passionate about.
“I decided I wanted to run the length of the Green, to see if I could understand the complexity of the way rivers are used,” writes Hansman in her book, Downriver. “I wanted to mesh my point-source understanding, couched in recreation and my narrow idea of conservation, with reality to see what drought and overuse were really doing.”
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you feel the need to paddle the Green yourself?
To me, being out on the ground with people was something I wanted to do. It was a venue to say, OK, what does this actually look like? How do you take [the story] out of the policy notes and [out onto the river]. Here is what people are fighting about. I wanted to actually get on the ground and look at it. I wanted to be out on the river and that felt like the only way to tell the story.
It was scary. I was like, I’m going to run the river and write a book. And then [the University of Chicago Press] bought it and I signed up for it. And I was like, Oh, I have to do this thing I said I was going to do. I didn’t really know how. I had done week-long river trips with a group before, but I had never done big, solo trips.
How did you figure it out to do a trip like this?
There are some guys who paddled the Green through its confluence with the Colorado down to the ocean a few years before I did. So I reached out to them and called them. And I started looking at maps.
There are some parts that people paddle pretty frequently, like the Gates of Lodore and Desolation Canyon, so I knew how long that would take and what permits I would need.
And then there were some stretches that basically nobody does. There was a nine-day stretch above Desolation Canyon and the only guy I knew who had done it before was this guy George Wendt, who ended up dying of cancer when I was on the river. But he was like, ‘Yeah, I did it in the ’70s. I don’t really remember much, but I think it was super buggy and flat.’ I was like, ‘OK cool. We’ll see what happens.’
A lot of it was guessing: I think this is how many miles a day I can do. I’m going to give myself a little bit of a margin of error on either side for how long I think that stretch is going to take.
I lucked out. The water was pretty high, The river basin had a wet spring, so the river was really moving when I was on it.
I think a lot of things worked out in my favor. People were able to help me. I got hurt [just before the trip], I had a shoulder blow out right before, which was scary. I was like, OK, is this a bad idea? Did I sign up for something stupid? But it worked out. People really helped me.
A lot of the stuff, like food and logistics, was just once I was there on the ground. Like: Here’s what I have for breakfast. I just adapted to it.
Throughout the book, you write about reconciling your own opinions with the perspectives of people who you meet on the river, many of whom look at the world from a different angle than you do. What was your viewpoint about water in the West going into this trip, and how did that change?
I had this liberal, lefty, environmentalist, raft guide perspective. Keep water in the rivers. Use as little as possible. Don’t touch it. Nature is better. And that is a naïve perspective. It’s not realistic, because everybody needs water. At this point, you can’t tell people not to move to L.A. or Denver. We have this system in place already for how water is used, how it’s divided—and it’s so embedded in what we’re doing. It’s so naïve to think, let’s just do less and it will be OK.
I think change is going to come from really minor adjustments in a lot of places. It’s not going to be this idealistic Keep the rivers flowing free and it will be great! I think I had that. It gets way more subtle once you get into it and way more complicated.
That’s part of why I wanted to write about water. I knew it was really complicated and tricky. But I think I didn’t even know how complicated it was until I really got into it. And I was like, Oh, people who are way smarter than me have been thinking about this for a really long time and they don’t have great answers yet.
At first, you wrote that the solitary nature of paddling down the river was unnerving. But the farther downriver you got, the more comfortable you were with the isolation. That’s unusual in our culture and society to have such long spans of time alone. How was that for you?
I think I’m somebody who needs a lot of alone time anyway. I hadn’t really realized that. At first, I was really scared that I wasn’t capable of doing it, or I couldn’t figure it out, or I was going to get hurt. The first week, I was like: My boat is deflating, my boat is deflating, every day.
It’s like muscle memory. You just keep doing it. And then you’re like: OK, I did it. And then you normalize it.
The parts that were the hardest were the transition points, where I was coming back into reality and it was a culture shock. Or I would have people with me for a chunk and then they would leave, and that would feel really lonely. But when I was just in it and rowing along, it didn’t feel lonely.
There were definitely some nights. I did that nine-day section alone. It was the first or second night, and I was camping on the sand bar because there weren’t really any good beaches. There were oil and gas rigs around. I could see lights a little bit. And I heard this big splash in the middle of the night, and all of a sudden, I was just awake. I was like: Someone is going to come kill me. I was up the whole night. Because, they could have. You never know. And then I got up in the morning and I was paddling along, and I heard the same noise. And it was a beaver.
But, basically, everyone I interacted with—I locked my keys in my car and some stranger drove me 30 miles out of his way to go get it—like, pretty much every interaction I had with somebody was good.
You also wrote a lot about social justice, from the standpoint of the river. How the Green is a common ground, but also a divider and a tool for control.
Totally, yeah. I think that water is really going to be one of the biggest social justice and equity questions of the future. You’re seeing that in Flint [in Michigan]. You’re seeing that in California, when there’s drought. That’s something where the market won’t support society. You can’t just be like, whoever can pay for it gets it. There’s zero equity in that.
You went to a community meeting in Vernal, Utah, where stakeholders from all sides had come to discuss water rights. It was a controversial meeting, but it also felt like progress was being made, at least on a small scale. How can rivers help us communicate?
That whole experience was surprising. I was like: Sure, this meeting is going on, I guess I’ll just pop in. I got there and was like, Oh, this is the heart of all of it.
People feel really disenfranchised and they’re not being heard, and that feels really frustrating. I think even being heard makes a difference. When the woman from the Bureau of Reclamation got up and said, ‘Hey, we’re trying.’ People were like, ‘Oh she’s a real person, she’s trying.’ And I think that made a pretty big difference.
What role can recreationalists play? We go to these places and we are passionate about conservation and preservation and we have deep connections to water or the mountains. What advice do you have for people who go to these places to have a dialogue?
I think part of it is knowing and thinking about a bigger connection. I’m paddling the Colorado, where does that water come from? Where does it go?
It’s thinking about it more. At my house in Seattle, where does my water come from? I didn’t know that before. Dig in.
For me, having recreational experience was the thing that made me care. It can often be the the thing that leads people to advocacy or some kind of connection. Digging in a little deeper.
What was the general reception you got from people who you met on the river?
There was a little bit of skepticism sometimes. I was coming from Seattle. I had to prove myself a little bit, for sure, and say that I’m not just a weird vegetarian hippie raft guide. I’m listening.
When you were off the river, where did your research take you?
Water rights vary state by state. So it was going to the state engineer’s office in Wyoming and in Utah and being like, ‘How do you divide up water rights?’ It was definitely a mix of [reading] history and legal documents, and also, ‘Hello, can you please explain this to me in the most basic sense?’
It would have been really hard for me to understand it and explain it if I hadn’t had the real life experience. I think just trying to drill into how water is sorted out and why people fight about it from a paper standpoint is impossibly boring. People talk about that—paper water rights and wet water rights—and I needed both sides of it to make sense of it to me.
What’s happened on the Green since you paddled down the river?
The Colorado River Compact [which dictates water usage rights among the states bordering the river including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming] has interim guidelines [which indicate what happens in drought years when the reservoirs get too low] that expire in 2026. So they’re talking about revising the [compact’s interim guidelines]. And for the first time, California and Arizona are offering to make voluntary cuts to the water they get, which is a big deal.
The [Lake] Powell Pipeline is a big part of it. There’s a proposed pipeline to pull water out of Lake Powell [via an approximately 140-mile buried pipeline] for [Washington and Kane counties in] southern Utah. Utah’s public suppliers use more water per capita than anywhere and water is super cheap in Utah. The proposed Powell Pipeline would pull the rest of the state’s water rights out [of the Colorado] for a big development in St. George.
They have 1.71 million acre feet a year of water legally allocated, through the Colorado River Compact, but it doesn’t actually exist. So if they end up piping that water out, the math doesn’t add up. We’ve been coming to a head on this, at some point, drought and fear make people act, and I think we’re coming to that point now, which is scary and necessary. It’s hard to motivate people to change things when things feel good.
So yeah, there’s a lot and this year, the Colorado River Basin is going back to 110 percent of average snowfall, so it looks good. But it is pretty fragile.