Everything except the airplane ride was new to Rosalia Salazar.
A senior at Veterans Tribute Career & Technical Academy, Salazar in August pitched her tent, slept under the stars, navigated the Colorado River and learned about life without the comforts of home and conveniences of life in Las Vegas.
What Salazar and the other 17 students on the first Nuestro Rio Latino Youth Excursion were really there to learn about, though, were water issues.
"Our first night there I was kind of scared a little bit. I was lying down in the cot and sort of freaking out. I don't know why," Salazar said. "And then I just began to feel nature take over. I felt the presence of the river. And what really put me to sleep was the water, the rapids, and then you hear nature all around you and then silence. It's nothing like we have here in Vegas. We are used to pollution and having everything available to us 24/7. That peace and serenity was amazing."
Nuestro Rio is an organization focused on preserving the Colorado River and promoting the importance of the river in Hispanic history and culture. The Latino Youth Excursion selects students who submitted essays on the importance of water issues to take a trip along the river to cultivate the next generation of river advocates. A group of 18 students from Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado made the trip with a few chaperones and trained guides, and a select few will take their knowledge to Washington, D.C., today in an attempt to influence lawmakers.
"We wanted to educate the kids about the ecological history of the river, the political history of the river and the cultural history of the river," said Marco Rauda, national coordinator for Nuestro Rio. "We wanted to connect the kids, and their history, with the river so they can be advocates for us in the future."
The group spent six days rafting from Lee's Ferry to Whittaker Creek and came back armed with statistics and real-life experiences to bolster the case for water conservation. Like Salazar, most of the students had never spent time in the wilderness.
"It was a lot of firsts for me," Salazar said. "It was my first camping experience, first rafting trip and first ride on a helicopter."
The Colorado River Basin is suffering from a drought that has lasted for more than a decade coupled with an ever-increasing demand for water.
Each year federal officials release water from Lake Powell to flow downriver to Lake Mead. This year's release is expected to be the smallest on record.
The Colorado River Basin spans parts of seven states, including Nevada, and is one of the most vital sources of water in the western United States and northern Mexico. The river and its tributaries provide water to about 40 million people for municipal use and also supply the water used to irrigate about 4 million acres of land. At least 22 Native American tribes, seven National Wildlife Refuges, four National Recreation Areas -- including Lake Mead National Recreation Area -- and 11 national parks depend on the river for water.
"One of the things that really impacted me was, as you are going through the river on the raft, you think the water is deep enough as it is, but when we got further into the trip you could see the water line that is so high up above from where you are. I remember sitting on the raft and thinking, 'If that water line was where the water was today, we would be at the bottom of the river.' It was really eye-opening. At that moment I realized how much water has gone to waste."
Salazar came home with water in her thoughts. She put her parents on notice: No more long showers and running the faucet while they brush their teeth. She is turned off by water parks and even softly cajoles her friends to think about water conservation in their daily lives.
"My mom, because she is a woman, gets six to seven minutes in the shower but my dad only gets four minutes," she said. "I have a stopwatch to time them."
Five of the 18 students who went on the trip, including Salazar, are scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., until Wednesday to attend conferences and meet with lawmakers and their staffers to share what they learned.
"Drought is the way of the land in the Southwest. If we can get (lawmakers) to understand that the kids are the ones who are going to have to deal with it, maybe that will get them to act," Rauda said.
Salazar, who admits that before she left she wrongly assumed there would be working bathrooms along the trip down the river, now says she cannot wait to return.
She came back with a twisted knee and the worst sunburn of her life, but her enthusiasm was not dampened when her parents picked her up at the airport.
"I said 'Mom, we have to go back.' I really want her to come with me one day. I actually have been trying to talk her into doing a trip on the river instead of having a (high school) graduation party for me. It was such an amazing experience."
Original headline: With river trip behind them, students head to D.C. to seek action on water issues
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