Whenever pilot Will Worthington flies passengers in his Cessna 182 over the final 50-mile stretch of the Colorado River, the full impact of human activity on the West’s hardest-working waterway comes into startling clarity.
“In the course of an hour-long flight, they see where the Colorado River used to flow into the Sea of Cortez and it’s eye-opening. There is no water. The river looks just like a dry wash,” says Will.
“When people see that from the air, they have an epiphany. They can see how we have brought the Colorado River to its knees.”
For the past 15 years, Will has been a volunteer pilot with LightHawk, a nonprofit conservation organization that uses aviation to highlight environmental threats in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
LightHawk works in partnership with other conservation NGOs to arrange and design educational flights for a wide array of stakeholders – including elected officials, scientists, media and donors – that raise public awareness and help decision-makers improve environmental policy.
The Colorado-based organization leans heavily on a pool of almost 300 volunteer aviators, who donate their time, aircraft and fuel to the cause. LightHawk’s aerial work fills a critical niche in the conservation world by providing NGOs and others access to aviation resources that might otherwise be too costly to access.
"The flights provide people with an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. You see things at the watershed scale, at the landscape scale," says Esther Duke, LightHawk’s western program director.
"From above, you can see our human priorities mapped onto the landscape. With all the engineering of the river, you can see the areas getting water and areas that are not. You see the full connectivity of that watershed. That can be quite powerful."
The Walton Family Foundation supports LightHawk through its Colorado River initiative, which aims to restore river health and address threats to water supply throughout the river basin.
Founded 40 years ago, LightHawk flies more than 400 conservation flights a year. The conservation issues it addresses run the gamut - from flying captive-bred endangered California Condors for release in the wild to raising awareness about the impacts of sea-level rise on the Pacific coast.
In the Colorado River basin, LightHawk’s work has included flights over the Salton Sea to highlight the magnitude of water loss in California's largest lake, and along the Colorado River Delta to demonstrate the potential and progress on river and wetlands restoration in the region.
"I have flown from the headwaters of the Colorado River to the Delta and it's a remarkable journey," says Esther.
"You can see, for example, how upland forest health connects to water quality and quantity in an urban area that may be hundreds of miles downstream. In the airplane, those connections become much more apparent."
For LightHawk’s pilots, the volunteer flights are labors of love.
Stephanie Wells, a pilot based in Bloomfield, Co., has flown about 150 conservation flights.
“I am retired and passionate about environmental issues. Flying for LightHawk combines my love of flying and concern for the environment, so it is the perfect volunteer activity for me,” Stephanie says.
"The flights offer our partners the ability to see the things they are concerned about from the air and document them as no other way could. They learn from the flights - and get the word out to people who can make a difference."
Will echoes the sentiment.
Based near Phoenix, Will began flying with LightHawk after retiring from a career in civil engineering. In his professional life, he worked on major water projects in the West, such as the Central Arizona Project, the vast system that supplies Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona.
“To me, this is a great way of giving back at this point in my life. I have the time and resources to give back,” says Will, who is also a LightHawk board member. He estimates he’s flown between 200 and 300 flights for the organization.
"I love to fly when there is a purpose to fly. It's not my habit to go get in my airplane and go flying with no purpose, just to go bore holes in the sky."
Each LightHawk flight poses a new challenge, Will says, because he wants to give passengers a perspective they could never get by touring a site on the ground.
“The flights stretch your creativity and experience,” he says.
"I love the terrain of the West. I think it's important for all of us to have as light a footprint as you can when an area gets developed. A lot of what we do through LightHawk is to highlight the ill-advised and unwise practices that can accompany development."
Also apparent is the impact of drought on water supply.
Will says flight provides a vivid view of falling water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell and problems like land subsidence caused by shrinking water tables due to groundwater pumping for agriculture.
“Those of us who understand water issues very much appreciate the effects of drought. You see the bathtub ring on the big reservoirs. It’s quite dramatic.”