By Colorado Law Graduates Eric Dude, Marisa Hazell, and Shelby Krantz
The Law of the Colorado River seminar, taught by Professor Sarah Krakoff, is a deep-dive into the American West’s most important resource – the water of the Colorado River. We studied every aspect of the river and its management; the Colorado River Compact, the two major dams at Glen Canyon and Boulder Canyon, Tribal water rights and the Tribes’ involvement in the development of the modern Law of the River, how management is changing in response to aridification in the West, and more. Unlike many other law school courses, the bulk of the course is not about legal arguments in appellate courtrooms. Instead, it focuses on how the stakeholders who rely on Colorado River water have negotiated throughout the last century to prop-up an allocation scheme that promises too much from a river that provides less water every year. To cap off the seminar, we took a two-week trip down the Colorado River’s mainstem through the entire Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry…
When our bus pulled up to Lee’s Ferry on May 7, we caught our first glimpse of the river we had been studying so closely for the last four months. It was clear and frigid-cold. Just hours before our arrival, this water had been released from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam, where all of the silt the river carried from the Colorado Plateau settled behind its seven-hundred foot high concrete walls. We settled into our boats (wooden dories) and began our course west as the Kaibab Limestone—the layer of rock that makes up the rim of the Grand Canyon—rose out of the water. For the next two weeks, we would watch this layer rise thousands of feet into the air above us, as each successive layer beneath it added new colors and textures to our canyon landscape.
These two weeks on the river are, in many ways, reducible to some meaningful numerical figures:
277 river miles;
Over 100 rapids;
5 dory boats;
12 newly minted JDs;
3 rising 3Ls;
2 conferred LLMs;
2 Colorado Law professors;
1 Public interest lawyer
2 Colorado Law alumni donors.
But the reducible parts of this trip only provide the barest outline of what we experienced. The story is more satisfyingly filled in, as are most stories in life, by the uncountable:
Waiting to climb behind a limestone waterfall onto a moss-clad ledge to jump into a pool of warm, cerulean spring water, and the cheers that erupted as each of us did so in turn (including one epic belly flop);
The deep relaxation brought on by a warm, sunny lunch break after hours of shivering through cold wind and rain;
The ease of existing in a world not overburdened by connection—two weeks of cell-service-less bliss—and the creativity that flowed from the space created;
The validation of solidifying connections with old friends and creating connections with new ones, and the sweet exhaustion of hours of belly-laughing and late-night sing alongs;
The panic of realizing on Day 8 that we might run out of beer—and the calm when it all worked out;
The pure joy of riding through rapids with successive twenty-five-foot waves, and that of making it through unscathed;
The incredibly fleeting feeling of cleanliness and refreshment after braving a cold bath in the river;
The pride we felt during our river-side graduation ceremony, and the gratitude of sharing it intimately with important mentors and close friends; and, importantly,
The pure awe of experiencing a new and unmatched beauty around every bend in the river through the entire length of the Grand Canyon.
Each person on this trip, undoubtedly, could add pages of their own to this list. While some of these feelings are shared among us, each person took their own important lessons from the trip. Some of us were inspired to add new routines to our personal lives to emulate what we enjoyed on the river—more time dedicated to journaling, reading, or quiet contemplation. Others were encouraged to get back out for more river trips, more climbing, more hiking. And we each felt driven to prioritize time outside away from the grind in our careers in order to ground ourselves and recharge.
The academic insights were just as numerous and uniquely impactful. Spending the entire semester learning about the history of policy and law on the Colorado River fundamentally changed the experience of rafting down the canyon from merely an immersion in nature to an immersion in history and culture. To us, the trip wasn’t just through Grand Canyon National Park; it was through the heart of a river that has always sustained the people of the Southwest.
As we traveled from Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry, it was inspiring to run the same rapids as John Wesley Powell and know the hardship his crew faced in the very same spaces. It was humbling to see petroglyphs from centuries ago and picture the tribes that inhabited the canyon before colonization, while at the same time understanding the law and policy that pushed them onto reservations to facilitate western expansion and public lands development. And as our guides read the rapids based on water flows from the Glen Canyon Dam and told stories of higher levels, we understood which government forces were impacting the water we floated on and how the communities that depended on energy and water from the dam were growing because of it (for better or worse).
Watching the moon rise over canyon walls each night, we pictured those before us who had done the same: American Indian tribal members, adventurers, policy makers, and fellow rafters. Each with their own perspective on the canyon and how it should be utilized or preserved. All who had, in their own way, influenced how we were experiencing the canyon. Rafting with this context allowed us to understand how we, as students passionate about protecting spaces like the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, would be a part of this long connected history. That is, how our future careers are not just about the issues of today or the present state of nature, but build on the fabric of the past and the changes that the law has brought to these landscapes.
Through three years of law school and grueling office internships, our work can feel very detached from the communities and spaces the law impacts. Somewhere along the way, we all get caught up in the culture of law school and the compulsion to always do more, and we lose touch with our base motivations. Many of us came to law school because we wanted to solve problems for communities and environments with compassion and insight, not merely engage in the rote application of legal rules. Rafting the Grand Canyon with the knowledge we gained through this seminar will allow us to do just that. And in the grandeur of billions of years of history displayed through striking rock layers, the trip made us feel a little less small in the world and more connected to it all.
At mile 210 of the Grand Canyon, Professor Krakoff gave us our commencement speech in our chair circle on the beach while Andy, one of our guides, played “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” on his guitar. In that moment, it was impossible not to feel grateful to have come to Colorado Law and been given the opportunity to have this experience as a capstone to our legal education and a catalyst to our legal careers. The trip gave each of us a renewed sense of wonder and purpose. It is the ideal energizing experience to take with us into our careers. We gained perspective on how we wanted to prioritize our lives to ensure they will be meaningful—in our legal careers, as advocates, and as people. We will forever remember the inspiration of the trip, the amazing connections we made together, and the joyful adventure we shared. rful