Colorado RiverGeographers can tell you that the one thing that most rivers and their adjacentflood plains in the world have in common is that they have rich historiesassociated with human settlement and development. This especially true in aridregions which are very dependent upon water. Two excellent examples are the Nileand the Tigris-Euphrates rivers which show use the relationship between riversand concentrations of people. However, the Colorado River is not such a goodexample along most segments of its course.
There is no continuous transportationsystem that parallels the rivers course, and settlements are clustered. Therugged terrain and entrenched river channels are the major reasons for sparsehuman settlement. We ask ourselves, did the Colorado River help or hindersettlement in the Western United States? As settlers began to move westward, theSouthwest was considered to be a place to avoid. Few considered it a place totraverse, to spread Christianity, and a possible source of furs or mineralwealth. Finding a reliable or accessible water source, and timber for buildingwas difficult to find. There was a lack of land that could be irrigated easily.
By the turn of the century, most present day cities and towns were alreadyestablished. Trails, roads, and railroads linked several areas with neighboringregions. Although the Colorado River drainage system was still not integrated. In the mid 1900’s many dams had been built to harness and use the water. A newphase of development occurred at the end of the second World War. There was alarge emphasis on recreation, tourism, and environmental preservation.
Theterrain of the Colorado River is very unique. It consists of Wet Upper Slopes,Irregular Transition Plains and Hills, Deep Canyonlands, and the Dry LowerPlains. Wet Upper Slopes: Consist of numerous streams that feed into theColorado River from stream cut canyons, small flat floored valleys oftenoccupied by alpine lakes and adjacent steep walled mountain peaks. These areasare heavily forested and contain swiftly flowing streams, rapids, andwaterfalls. These areas have little commercial value except as watershed,wildlife habitat, forest land, and destinations for hikers, fishermen, andmountaineers. Irregular Transition Plains and Hills: These areas are favorablefor traditional economic development.
It consists of river valleys with adequateflat land to support farms and ranches. Due to the rolling hills, low plateaus,and mountain slopes, livestock grazing is common. The largest cities of thewhole drainage system are found here. Deep Canyonlands: Definitely the mostspectacular and least developed area along the Colorado River.
These deep gorgesare primarily covered by horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks, of which sandstone is the most abundant. The Grand Canyon does not only display spectacularbeauty, but numerous other features such as mesas, buttes, spires, balancingrocks, natural arches and bridges, sand dunes, massive sandstone walls, andpottholed cliffs. Dry Lower Plains: These consist of the arid desert areas. These areas encounter hot summers and mild winters. Early settlement was limitedbecause most of the land next to the river was not well suited for irrigationagriculture. The area is characterized by limited flat land, poor soils, poordrainage, and too hot of conditions for most traditional crops.
The ColoradoRiver was first navigated by John Wesley Powell, in his 1869 exploration throughthe Marble and Grand Canyons. The Colorado River begins high in the ColoradoRocky Mountains. The water begins from melting snow and rain, and is thensupplemented by the Gunnison, Green, San Juan, Little Colorado, Virgin, and GilaRivers. Before any dams were built, the Colorado River carried 380,000 milliontons of silt to the Sea of Cortez. Along it’s path, it carves out the Marble,Grand, Black, Boulder, and Topok Canyons. The Grand Canyon being the mostpopular, which is visited by numerous tourists every year, plays a large role inwestern tourism.
The Grand Canyon is in fact one of the World’s Seven Wonders. The Colorado Basin covers 240,000 square miles of drainage area. At certainpoints along the river, it turns into a raging, muddy, rapid covered mass ofwater. Unlike other rivers, the Colorado River doesn’t meet the ocean in agrand way, but rather in a small trickle. Almost all of the water that passesdown the river is spoken for.
It passes through seven Western States, travels1,700 miles, and descends more than 14,000 feet before emptying into the sea,with more silt and salinity than any river in North America. A river not usedfor commerce, or any degree of navigation other than recreational, and virtuallyignored until the turn of the century. The Colorado River is the most foughtover, litigated, and legislated river in the United States. The upper Coloradopasses through mountainous, less populated country. It has seen fewer problemsthat the lower Colorado.
The lower Colorado, which passes through canyons andarid desert, serves a more populated area. It has been a large source ofarguments for the state of California and surrounding areas since the early1900’s. The first project on the Colorado River was the Alamo River Projectnear Yuma, Arizona. Sediment from the upper river was transported and depositeddown river. It raised the river bed so the river was higher than the surroundingland, making water easy to divert for irrigation. The Alamo Canal diverted waterfrom the Colorado River to the Alamo River, and traveled 60 miles through Mexicoacross the Mexicali desert to the Salton Sink, a depression in the ImperialValley.
For this, Mexico received the right to take half the water from thecanal, the rest went to the Imperial Valley. Although it may have seemed like aneasy way to divert the water, the Alamo Canal was no match for the untamedColorado River. In 1905 a series of floods breached the intake and flooded theImperial Valley, settling in the Salton Sea. After tremendous amounts ofmanpower and money, the river was returned to its original path. This disasteralarmed the landowners of the valley. The Imperial Irrigation District ofSouthern California was the largest single user of Colorado River water.
Theycampaigned for an All-American Canal. One that would divert the river above theMexican border and leave the Mexicali desert with what they didn’t use. This wasmet with much opposition from the largest landowner in the Mexican desert, asyndicate of wealthy Los Angeles businessmen, headed by Harry Chandler of theLos Angeles Times. The Imperial Valley landowners received support from the Cityof Los Angeles. The city was growing rapidly and the need for future electricpower was a major concern. Water experts advocated a dam on the Colorado.
Without this dam, the All-American Canal would be in danger of breaching andflooding. The two forces combined to work for a Dam in Boulder Canyon on theColorado River. In Salt Lake City in January 1919, representatives from theseven states that have tributaries emptying into the Colorado River met. “The water should first be captured and used while it is young, for then itcan be recaptured as it returns from the performance of its duties and thus beused over and over again “. (1) On Nov.
24, 1922, the seven states signedthe Colorado River Compact. This pact divided the waters into 2 basin areas,separated at Lee’s Ferry, at the head of the Grand Canyon. The Upper statesincluded Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The Lower states includedArizona, California and Nevada. Each area received 7.
5 million acre feet ofwater, with the lower basin getting an extra 1 million acre feet annually fromits tributaries. The allocation of river water was based on an annual flow atLee’s Ferry of 16. 5 million acre feet. This was later found to be inaccurate anddid not take into account the rivers dry years. A more accurate flow is 13. 5million acre feet per year.
In addition, any water given to Mexico byinternational treaty would be supplied first from the surplus above the total of16 million acre feet, and if this was not sufficient, the deficiency would beshared equally by the two basins. The consensus was that the river and itstributaries were American (244,000 sq. miles) originating in the United States,very little of the Colorado River was in Mexico (2,000 sq. miles), and thereforethey deserved very little.
Herbert Hoover stated, “We do not believe they(Mexicans) ever had any rights. ” The Indian tribes along the river weretreated the same way. Hoover inserted what was called the ‘Wild Indian Article’,”nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations ofthe United States of America to Indian tribes. ” (2) It’s obvious that thenative Mexicans and Indians were being deprived of what originally belonged tothem. The attitude of Herbert Hoover left the local peoples with a taste ofresentment. The Colorado River Pact did not apportion water to individualstates.
Arizona would not ratify the pact, feeling that California was takingall the water given to the lower basin. Arizona contributed 3 major rivers,about 2 to 3 million acre feet, to the Colorado. California farmers would be thelargest single users of the water, but would contribute nothing. Californiafinally agreed to some concessions.
All the waters of the Gila River in Arizonawould go to Arizona, and be exempted from the Mexican Treaty. California alsoagreed to apportion 0. 3 million acre feet of water to Nevada, 4. 4 million acrefeet and 1/2 of the surplus to California, 2.
8 million acre feet to Arizona andthe other 1/2 of the surplus. Arizona was still not satisfied. The argument wenton for years, with Congress finally passing the Boulder Canyon Act in 1928without Arizona’s ratification. The Boulder Canyon Act of 1928 authorized theconstruction of a hydro-electric plant at Black Canyon.
The cost to be off-setby the selling of electric power over a total of 50 years. All power privilegesat the dam were to be controlled by private interest. The Metropolitan WaterDistrict controlled 36%, City of LA 19%, Arizona 18%, and Nevada 18%. The actalso included the construction of the All-American Canal, starting at Laguna Damand crossing 75 miles of Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea. Arizona’s share ofthe water made it possible for large population increases in Phoenix and Tucson,two desert regions that would not be able to exist with out the Colorado River. Population increases in Phoenix and Tucson were using much of the state’s water.
Arizona wanted more water from the Colorado River, they continued to fightCalifornia for it. In 1930 Arizona filed what was to be many lawsuits againstthe State of California for more water rights. It wasn’t until Arizona wasgranted electricity from Hoover Dam, and given assurances for the CentralArizona Project, that Arizona ratified the 1922 Colorado River Compact, 22 yearslater. Nevada, the one state that has no major river, was largely unpopulated atthis time and remained unconcerned about the water allocation.
During this time,The Federal Bureau of Reclamation built Davis Dam, 66 miles below Hoover Dam tofurther regulate flows and provide storage. Parker Dam, below Davis was built in1934 to facilitate the 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct. This was anotherof Metropolitan Water District’s projects to transport water to Los Angeles. With Hoover and Parker, California could receive 5.
6 million acre feet from theColorado River. Mexico saw its share of the river water drying up with thecontrol of the water at Hoover Dam. In 1944 the United States, wanting tocontinue a good relationship with her neighbor, signed an agreement with Mexicogiving them 1. 5 million acre feet per year, with nothing said about the qualityof the water.
Mexico water, due to return irrigation water from United Statesfields and evaporation was increasingly saline. Additional water to flush thesalts was tried, but the condition worsened. By 1955, the Mexicali Valley was aleading cotton producing region. By 1960, growing salinity of river water hurtthe cotton crop along with the decline in cotton prices. Mexico and the UnitedStates argued over the quality of water, and due to the administration’s”Good Neighbor Policy”, the United States acquiesced, and in 1973signed a water agreement with Mexico.
United States reduced salt by releasingmore water upstream, the quality of water arriving at Morelos Dam was to beequal in quality to water behind Imperial Dam. The silt was to be removed by thegiant desilting works at Imperial Dam, and then the water was returned to theriver above Morelos Dam at the Imperial Irrigation District Pilot Knob powerdrop. This policy promised Mexico that salinity levels would be no more than 115parts per million. It also obligated the United States to assume all costsnecessary to meet the salinity levels. As a result, the United States agreed toupstream salt control projects in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and a 260 Milliondollar desalination plant in Yuma, Arizona.
The desalination plant reclaims morethan 70 million gallons of drainage water a day from the Welton-Mohawkirrigation project. Fifty miles from the Mexican border is Laguna Salada, theend of the Colorado River. An unlined canal carries the water 50 miles and thenempties it onto the flat plain of sand and silt where the Sea of Cortez washesthe last drops into the gulf. The Mexican water irrigates soil for 14,000farmers and supplies drinking water for the Mexicali Valley. A 76 mile aqueductprovides water for Tijuana, Mexico. It was not until 1964 that Arizona finallygot their share of the water with the passage of the Central Arizona Project.
The Central Arizona Project was the culmination of years of litigation. The 3. 5million dollar project pumps water from Lake Havasu, 824 feet up and over theBuckskin Mountains through a 7 mile tunnel along a concrete aqueduct 333 milesto the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. The Central Arizona Project was built bythe Bureau of Reclamation and finished in 1991. In 1963 in Arizona vs.
California, the Supreme Court allocated 900,000 acre feet of Colorado Riverwater to 5 Indian tribes along the river, and 79,000 acre feet for federallands. This gives them sufficient water to meet needs of reservation. Recentlythe tribes have reasoned that farm lands were omitted from the original estimateand that they want more water rights. If tribes receive more water, this couldmean less water for the lower basin.
Opponents argue that the Navajo Tribebargained away some rights for other developments, such as the huge coal burningpower plant on Lake Powell. The Federal Governments outlook is, “why givethe tribes more water?” They gave away their rights, and the Federalgovernment does not have the money for water irrigation projects that wouldbenefit so few people. There is another side to the Indian issue, “first intime, first in right”. this means that the Indians were there first, beforethe laws, so therefore the Indians have first right to the water. This would puta totally different slant on distribution of Colorado River water, but mostpeople feel that this issue would be tied up in litigation for years, andbecause of the benefits of so few, the Indians would likely lose. Citizensgroups have become more vocal in the management of the lower Colorado RiverBasin.
The river water has historically been given to agricultural uses. Inrecent times, urban sprawl has infringed on the agriculture, 80% of the Coloradoriver water is still used for crops, but scarcity and expensive water islimiting the agriculture. The Imperial Valley Irrigation district wastes about15% of its water. Conservation has led to the lining of canals with cement. Thishad brought about charges that it prevents seepage from filling ground wateraquifers. Water experts fear that depleting local water supplies will emptyunderground reservoirs, so they want more water from the Colorado.
Maintainingstream flow of tributaries is necessary for preserving habitat and undergroundaquifers. Infrared satellite photos which pick up plant growth as red, show thearea of the Colorado Delta in Mexico, the Mexicali, and San Louis Valley asdesolate, with few pale red patches, but the area of the canals in the ImperialValley show vibrant red. The growing population explosion in the southwest havegiven the municipalities a loud voice in the fight for more water, but most ofthe laws still favor agriculture. Agriculture produces economic advantages,government subsidies and facilities.
The Clean Water Act sets effluent standardsfor water coming from ‘point sources’ (pipes and ditches), but agriculturalreturn flow is exempt. In 1980, the State of Arizona passed the most stringentwater management program. This law discourages farmers from using CentralArizona Project (CAP) water to increase production of heavy water user cropssuch as cotton, rice and citrus, by having growers cut back on ground water useequal to their use of CAP water. The farmers can also sell their water rights todevelopers and local water systems. The City of Tucson is perhaps the most waterconscience city in America.
They have mandatory conservation, all golf coursesand city parks use reclaimed water, or water that has been recycled. They banoutdoor fountains and utilize low flow toilets and showers. The city has cuttheir water consumption 25% since 1974. Sadly, most of the west has notpracticed water conservation.
The recent six year drought in SouthernCalifornia, when many of the cities were required to conserve water, and someeven had water patrols to cite people for wasting water, forced people toconserve water or face stiff penalties. For years California had ‘borrowed’water from the upper basin and used Arizona and New Mexico’s unused portion oflower basin water. The water supply of the lower Colorado Rive Basin had, forthe first time, used up its entire share of river water. This meant severeconservation of water. By 1990, after heavy rains in Arizona, California wasagain using other states water. People went back to their old habits of wastingprecious water.
Many people felt that because conservationists are always cryingabout water shortages, they have cried wolf too often, they don ‘t believe thereis a water shortage, that it is only an excuse for raising water rates. On April1, 1994, California State water officials said that California is again in adrought. Many people will ignore this in view of recent heavy rains. People haveto understand that the water is only transported to Southern California. Ifthere is no rain or snow in Colorado (or the Sierra’s in California’s case) itcan result in water shortages.
A threat of water allocation is a threat to aperson or a communities way of life. New growth actually encourages more waterconsumption. New houses mean more dish washers, washing machines and backyardpools. This is not the way to manage water. A conscientious effort must be madeby government, and residents to share the water equally and conserve waterequally.
In 1980 legislature authorized the transfer of water rights, or watermarketing. Some people believed this would lead to an open market, the price ofthe water would reflect the cost of developing and distributing the water. Thehighest bidder would receive the water. In theory, the more the water costs, themore people would conserve.
But agriculture is heavily subsidized and thereforeprices can fluctuate. Commercial and residential users would be subject to highwater rates, with the wealthy being able to afford most of the water. This is anunfair and unjust system. A marketing system that is fair and responsible, onethat mandates conservation, should be enacted. Water needs to be dispersedequally.
The 1922 compact, while good in its time, is antiquated by today’sstandards and usage. “The politics of the Colorado River Basin is nothingmore than a fabric of promise, incurred at different times, under differentconditions and often for different purposes’. (3) The Colorado River could inthe future be augmented by other water. Some have suggested connecting theColumbia River to the Colorado by way of pumps, siphons and canals. These plansare very costly and unless water becomes scarce, this is not a reality.
SomeCalifornia coastal cities have made plans for alternate water in times ofshortage. Ocean water desalination plants are in the planning stages or underconstruction. This method of water augmentation is also very costly. Water is asocial good, a public trust, should communities be able to decide independentlyabout water use? The seven states of the Colorado River Basin should follow theadvice of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and form a commission, alongwith representatives of the Federal Government with input from the ColoradoRiver Indian Tribes, to regulate, manage, control, enforce and educate thepublic and private sectors regarding the Colorado River Water. Too manyagencies, too many private water companies all add to the confusion of the waterrights of the Colorado River.
Water banks need to be set up. Lake Mead isdesignated as a water bank for storage if all parties agree to this, but withthe history of regulations regarding Colorado River water, there will mostlikely be a long and drawn out battle over this idea. Only the fear of no wateror a severe drought seems to move passage on laws regarding the water. Peoplecome to the Colorado River to play and enjoy the water.
“Six national parksand recreation areas along the Colorado’s shores support a multi-million dollarrecreation industry of boating, hiking, fishing and white water rafting”. (4). Recreation has become a huge part of the Colorado River System. This hasbrought loud cries from the conservationists. In 1991 the Arizona stretch of theColorado River was named the most endangered river of 1991 by American Rivers, aconservation group. Many of the fish and wildlife have disappeared.
Specialareas have been designated as wildlife protection areas. The Endangered SpeciesAct protects the river and can be enacted independently of the Clean Water Act. Federal Fish and Game, state resources and conservation groups have all workedto make the public aware of this problem. The United States Fish and Wildlifedesignated the Colorado River north of Parker Dam to Needles as a criticalhabitat.
This was done to protect the squawfish, the razorback sucker, thehumpback, and bonytail chubs. Sportsmen fear this could severely handicaprecreation on Lake Havasu by limiting boating. There are other areas that havesuffered from altering the Colorado River. When the Alamo River Project wasimplemented, the natural river bed was raised to a higher level than thesurrounding land. In 1900, George Chaffey decided to run a canal through Mexicousing the Colorado’s old channel to the sink in California. The canal turnednorth into the United States east of Mexicali.
From there the channel, now knownas the Alamo River, led almost straight north. Chaffey called the southern halfthe Imperial Valley. In may of 1901, Colorado River water began to run into thischannel. In a few years the valley had 700 miles of irrigation ditches.
Settlerspiled in, homesteading federal land or buying it outright from the railroad. Toget irrigation water they had to buy stock in water companies controlled by theImperial Land Company, a front for Chaffey and Rockwood’s CaliforniaDeveloping Company. By 1904 there were 100,000 acres under irrigation. Then siltblocked up the head of the canal.
Water delivery to farmers was all but cut off. In the fall of 1904, The California Development Company made a cut in the riverto bypass the blockage. During the spring floods of 1905, the Colorado,completely out of control, rushed through the cut and surged on to the AlamoRiver, it’s old overflow channel, then plunged on into the New River. Digginginto the soft soil, it created a 28 foot high waterfall, scouring out theriver’s channel to the width of a quarter mile. It emptied into what is todayknown as the Salton Sea. The Salton is a bizarre looking sea which was 45 mileslong, 17 miles wide and about 80 feet deep.
After engineers got the Coloradounder control it should have dried up through evaporation. The sea has nooutlets and only gets about 2. 3 inches of rain per year. The sea has beensustained by drainwater from the 500,000 acres of heavily watered and fertilizedgrowing fields of the Imperial Valley, one of the most fruitful desertirrigation projects in history. Agricultural waste water carries variousnutrients, including nitrates, as well as pesticides, potentially toxic levelsof the element selenium, and four million tons of salt leached from the soilevery year.
The Salton Sea is now a lost city. In the late 1950’s, it wassupposed to become the Golden State’s great new playland, an alluringcombination of the desert and sea. M. Penn Phillips and other developers ofSalton City bought 19,600 acres that they subdivided on paper for house lots,shops, schools, parks and churches. They spent $1 million on a fresh waterdistribution system with 260 miles of water lines. They put in power lines and250 miles of elegantly paved streets.
They built a yacht club and a $350,00018-hole golf course. A big time gambler Ray Ryan with reputed mob connectionsbought land on the other side of the sea and sank more than $2 million into aresort he called the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. Unexpected rains keptraising the level of the sea and flooding shoreline homes and buildings. Asteadily growing concern set in about the water’s brownish tinge and aboutpollution levels and increasing salt content.
North Shore Beach and Yacht Clubis deserted today, its breakwater crumbling to the ground, its pool full ofstank rotten water. Across the water visitors northbound on Route 86 to SaltonCity find not sailboats and bikini-clad blondes on water skis, or docks full ofpleasure boats, but instead a scattering of houses, RV parks, run down motelsand empty lots along grassy overgrown streets. The Alamo River and the New Riverboth feed into the Salton Sea. Both flow north from Mexico receiving drainwateralong the way.
The New River is considered the most polluted river in the UnitedStates. It passes through Mexicali, Mexico, a city of more than 750,000 peoplethat dumps in raw sewage, inadequately treated sewage, leachate from landfills,and industrial and slaughter house wastes, as well as trash, toilet paper, deaddogs and phosphate detergents. The sea was for years one of the greatest fishingspots in California, and has long been one of America’s great birding spots. Birders flock to its shores, listing their sightings on clipboards maintained atornithological sites. At least 380 species have been reported, a number exceededin North America only by the Texas coast in spring. Recently there have beenincreasing signs of trouble.
Early in 1992, biologist Bill Radke of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service saw a number of eared grebes stagger up on shore anddie. Many were so disoriented that they stood still while gulls tore into theirflesh and began eating them on the spot.
This continued and the final death tollrose, by conservative estimates, to 150,000 grebes. Radke helped collect 40,000carcasses. Necropsies ruled out infectious disease as the cause of death, butthe tissues of some of the dead birds contained three times more selenium thanthat of grebes tested at the Salton Sea three years earlier. It is obvious thatthe Alamo River Project has had quite a disastrous effect on the Californiasink. We must also view the good that it has done, no matter how polluted theSalton Sea is today.
In the early 1900’s, this project was responsible forirrigating over 100,000 acres, today that number is over 500,000 acres of land. It is also a large bird sanctuary where over 380 species have been documented. To answer the question, “Did the Colorado River help or hinder settlementin the Western United States?” It is obvious that much of the Western U. S. is very dependent upon fresh water from this great river. The majority of thewater that is supplied to the Los Angeles Basin area is tapped out of theColorado River.
Major towns and cities in Arizona such as Phoenix, Tempe,Scottsdale, and Tucson are largely dependent upon the Colorado for water. Theentire Southwest, in general, relies on the Colorado River for it’s majorsource of water. Without the Colorado, it would not be possible to have so manysettlements in this beautiful and unique part of the world. BibliographyCarrier, Jim, “The Colorado, A River Drained Dry”, NationalGeographic, June 1991.
, p. 4. Doerner,William R. , “Big Splash in the AridWest”, Time, November 23, 1985, p. 43. Fradkin, Philip L.
, A River No More,University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1984. Gray, Paul, “Glen CanyonDam”, Time, July 22, 1991. , p. 22. Hundley, N