GeographyColorado RiverGeographers can tell you that the one thing that most rivers and theiradjacent flood plains in the world have in common is that they have richhistories associated with human settlement and development. Thisespecially true in arid regions which are very dependent upon water. Twoexcellent examples are the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers whichshow use the relationship between rivers and concentrations of people. However, the Colorado River is not such a good example along mostsegments of its course. There is no continuous transportation systemthat parallels the rivers course, and settlements are clustered.
Therugged terrain and entrenched river channels are the major reasons forsparse human settlement. We ask ourselves, did the Colorado River helpor hinder settlement in the Western United States?As settlers began to move westward, the Southwest was consideredto be a place to avoid. Few considered it a place to traverse, to spreadChristianity, and a possible source of furs or mineral wealth. Finding areliable or accessible water source, and timber for building wasdifficult to find. There was a lack of land that could be irrigatedeasily.Order now
By the turn of the century, most present day cities and townswere already established. Trails, roads, and railroads linked severalareas with neighboring regions. Although the Colorado River drainagesystem was still not integrated. In the mid 1900’s many dams had beenbuilt to harness and use the water. A new phase of development occurredat the end of the second World War. There was a large emphasis onrecreation, tourism, and environmental preservation.
The terrain of the Colorado River is very unique. It consists ofWet Upper Slopes, Irregular Transition Plains and Hills, DeepCanyonlands, and the Dry Lower Plains. 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. Theseareas are heavily forested and contain swiftly flowing streams, rapids,and waterfalls.
These areas have little commercial value except aswatershed, wildlife habitat, forest land, and destinations for hikers,fishermen, and mountaineers. Irregular Transition Plains and Hills: These areas are favorablefor traditional economic development. It consists of river valleys withadequate flat land to support farms and ranches. Due to the rollinghills, low plateaus, and mountain slopes, livestock grazing is common. The largest cities of the whole drainage system are found here.
Deep Canyonlands: Definitely the most spectacular and leastdeveloped area along the Colorado River. These deep gorges are primarilycovered by horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks, of which sand stone isthe most abundant. The Grand Canyon does not only display spectacularbeauty, but numerous other features such as mesas, buttes, spires,balancing rocks, natural arches and bridges, sand dunes, massivesandstone walls, and pottholed cliffs. Dry Lower Plains: These consist of the arid desert areas. Theseareas encounter hot summers and mild winters.
Early settlement waslimited because most of the land next to the river was not well suitedfor irrigation agriculture. The area is characterized by limited flatland, poor soils, poor drainage, and too hot of conditions for mosttraditional crops. The Colorado River was first navigated by John Wesley Powell,in his 1869 exploration through the Marble and Grand Canyons. TheColorado River begins high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
The waterbegins from melting snow and rain, and is then supplemented by the Gunnison, Green, San Juan, Little Colorado, Virgin, and Gila Rivers. 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 theMarble, Grand, Black, Boulder, and Topok Canyons. The Grand Canyon beingthe most popular, which is visited by numerous tourists every year, playsa large role in western tourism. The Grand Canyon is in fact one of theWorld’s Seven Wonders. The Colorado Basin covers 240,000 square miles ofdrainage area.
At certain points along the river, it turns into araging, muddy, rapid covered mass of water. Unlike other rivers, theColorado River doesn’t meet the ocean in a grand way, but rather in asmall trickle. Almost all of the water that passes down the river isspoken for. It passes through seven Western States, travels 1,700 miles,and descends more than 14,000 feet before emptying into the sea, withmore silt and salinity than any river in North America.
A river not usedfor commerce, or any degree of navigation other than recreational, andvirtually ignored until the turn of the century. The Colorado River is the most fought over, litigated, andlegislated river in the United States. The upper Colorado passes throughmountainous, less populated country. It has seen fewer problems that thelower 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 theearly 1900’s. The first project on the Colorado River was the Alamo RiverProject near Yuma, Arizona. Sediment from the upper river wastransported and deposited down river. It raised the river bed so theriver was higher than the surrounding land, making water easy to divertfor irrigation. The Alamo Canal diverted water from the Colorado Riverto the Alamo River, and traveled 60 miles through Mexico across theMexicali desert to the Salton Sink, a depression in the Imperial Valley.
For this, Mexico received the right to take half the water from thecanal, the rest went to the Imperial Valley. Although it may have seemedlike an easy way to divert the water, the Alamo Canal was no match forthe untamed Colorado River. In 1905 a series of floods breached theintake and flooded the Imperial Valley, settling in the Salton Sea. After tremendous amounts of manpower and money, the river was returned toits original path. This disaster alarmed the landowners of the valley.
TheImperial Irrigation District of Southern California was the largestsingle user of Colorado River water. They campaigned for an All-AmericanCanal. One that would divert the river above the Mexican border andleave the Mexicali desert with what they didn’t use. This was met with much opposition from the largest landowner in the Mexican desert, asyndicate of wealthy Los Angeles businessmen, headed by Harry Chandler ofthe Los Angeles Times. The Imperial Valley landowners received support from the City ofLos Angeles. The city was growing rapidly and the need for futureelectric power was a major concern.
Water experts advocated a dam on theColorado. Without this dam, the All-American Canal would be in danger ofbreaching and flooding. The two forces combined to work for a Dam inBoulder Canyon on the Colorado River. In Salt Lake City in January 1919, representatives from the sevenstates that have tributaries emptying into the Colorado River met. “Thewater should first be captured and used while it is young, for then itcan be recaptured as it returns from the performance of its duties andthus be used over and over again “. (1)On Nov.
24, 1922, the seven states signed the Colorado RiverCompact. This pact divided the waters into 2 basin areas, separated atLee’s Ferry, at the head of the Grand Canyon. The Upper states includedColorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The Lower states includedArizona, California and Nevada.
Each area received 7. 5 million acrefeet of water, with the lower basin getting an extra 1 million acre feetannually from its tributaries. The allocation of river water was basedon an annual flow at Lee’s Ferry of 16. 5 million acre feet. This waslater found to be inaccurate and did not take into account the rivers dryyears. A more accurate flow is 13.
5 million acre feet per year. In addition, any water given to Mexico by international treaty would besupplied first from the surplus above the total of 16 million acre feet,and if this was not sufficient, the deficiency would be shared equally bythe two basins. The consensus was that the river and its tributarieswere American (244,000 sq. miles) originating in the United States, verylittle of the Colorado River was in Mexico (2,000 sq.
miles), andtherefore they deserved very little. Herbert Hoover stated, “We do notbelieve they (Mexicans) ever had any rights. ” The Indian tribes alongthe river were treated the same way. Hoover inserted what was called the’Wild Indian Article’, “nothing in this compact shall be construed asaffecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indiantribes. ” (2) It’s obvious that the native Mexicans and Indians werebeing deprived of what originally belonged to them. The attitude ofHerbert Hoover left the local peoples with a taste of resentment.
The Colorado River Pact did not apportion water to individualstates. Arizona would not ratify the pact, feeling that California wastaking all the water given to the lower basin. Arizona contributed 3major rivers, about 2 to 3 million acre feet, to the Colorado. California farmers would be the largest single users of the water, butwould contribute nothing. California finally agreed to some concessions. All the waters of the Gila River in Arizona would go to Arizona, and beexempted from the Mexican Treaty.
California also agreed to apportion0. 3 million acre feet of water to Nevada, 4. 4 million acre feet and 1/2of the surplus to California, 2. 8 million acre feet to Arizona and theother 1/2 of the surplus. Arizona was still not satisfied. The argumentwent on for years, with Congress finally passing the Boulder Canyon Actin 1928 without Arizona’s ratification.
The Boulder Canyon Act of 1928 authorized the construction of ahydro-electric plant at Black Canyon. The cost to be off-set by theselling of electric power over a total of 50 years. All power privilegesat the dam were to be controlled by private interest. The MetropolitanWater District controlled 36%, City of LA 19%, Arizona 18%, and Nevada18%.
The act also included the construction of the All-American Canal,starting at Laguna Dam and crossing 75 miles of Imperial Valley to theSalton Sea. Arizona’s share of the water made it possible for largepopulation increases in Phoenix and Tucson, two desert regions that wouldnot be able to exist with out the Colorado River. Population increasesin Phoenix and Tucson were using much of the state’s water. Arizonawanted more water from the Colorado River, they continued to fightCalifornia for it.
In 1930 Arizona filed what was to be many lawsuitsagainst the State of California for more water rights. It wasn’t untilArizona was granted electricity from Hoover Dam, and given assurances forthe Central Arizona Project, that Arizona ratified the 1922 ColoradoRiver Compact, 22 years later. Nevada, the one state that has no majorriver, was largely unpopulated at this time and remained unconcernedabout the water allocation. During this time, The Federal Bureau of Reclamation built DavisDam, 66 miles below Hoover Dam to further regulate flows and providestorage.
Parker Dam, below Davis was built in 1934 to facilitate the 242mile long Colorado River Aqueduct. This was another of MetropolitanWater District’s projects to transport water to Los Angeles. With Hooverand 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, wantingto continue a good relationship with her neighbor, signed an agreementwith Mexico giving them 1. 5 million acre feet per year, with nothing saidabout the quality of the water. Mexico water, due to return irrigationwater from United States fields and evaporation was increasingly saline. Additional water to flush the salts was tried, but the conditionworsened.
By 1955, the Mexicali Valley was a leading cotton producingregion. By 1960, growing salinity of river water hurt the cotton cropalong with the decline in cotton prices. Mexico and the United Statesargued over the quality of water, and due to the administration’s “GoodNeighbor Policy”, the United States acquiesced, and in 1973 signed awater agreement with Mexico. United States reduced salt by releasingmore water upstream, the quality of water arriving at Morelos Dam was tobe equal in quality to water behind Imperial Dam. The silt was to beremoved by the giant desilting works at Imperial Dam, and then the waterwas returned to the river above Morelos Dam at the Imperial IrrigationDistrict Pilot Knob power drop.
This policy promised Mexico that salinity levels would be no more than115 parts per million. It also obligated the United States to assume allcosts necessary to meet the salinity levels. As a result, the UnitedStates agreed to upstream salt control projects in Nevada, Utah, andColorado, and a 260 Million dollar desalination plant in Yuma, Arizona. The desalination plant reclaims more than 70 million gallons of drainagewater a day from the Welton-Mohawk irrigation project. Fifty miles fromthe Mexican border is Laguna Salada, the end of the Colorado River.
Anunlined canal carries the water 50 miles and then empties it onto theflat plain of sand and silt where the Sea of Cortez washes the last dropsinto the gulf. The Mexican water irrigates soil for 14,000 farmers andsupplies drinking water for the Mexicali Valley. A 76 mile aqueductprovides water for Tijuana, Mexico. It was not until 1964 that Arizona finally got their share of thewater with the passage of the Central Arizona Project. The CentralArizona Project was the culmination of years of litigation. The 3.
5million dollar project pumps water from Lake Havasu, 824 feet up and overthe Buckskin Mountains through a 7 mile tunnel along a concrete aqueduct333 miles to the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. The Central ArizonaProject was built by the Bureau of Reclamation and finished in 1991. In 1963 in Arizona vs. California, the Supreme Court allocated900,000 acre feet of Colorado River water to 5 Indian tribes along theriver, and 79,000 acre feet for federal lands. This gives themsufficient water to meet needs of reservation.
Recently the tribes havereasoned that farm lands were omitted from the original estimate and thatthey want more water rights. If tribes receive more water, this couldmean less water for the lower basin. Opponents argue that the NavajoTribe bargained away some rights for other developments, such as the hugecoal burning power plant on Lake Powell. The Federal Governmentsoutlook is, “why give the tribes more water?” They gave away theirrights, and the Federal government does not have the money for waterirrigation projects that would benefit so few people. There is anotherside to the Indian issue, “first in time, first in right”. this meansthat the Indians were there first, before the laws, so therefore theIndians have first right to the water.
This would put a totallydifferent slant on distribution of Colorado River water, but most peoplefeel that this issue would be tied up in litigation for years, andbecause of the benefits of so few, the Indians would likely lose. Citizens groups have become more vocal in the management of thelower Colorado River Basin. The river water has historically been givento agricultural uses. In recent times, urban sprawl has infringed on theagriculture, 80% of the Colorado river water is still used for crops, butscarcity and expensive water is limiting the agriculture. The ImperialValley Irrigation district wastes about 15% of its water.
Conservationhas led to the lining of canals with cement. This had brought aboutcharges that it prevents seepage from filling ground water aquifers. Water experts fear that depleting local water supplies will emptyunderground reservoirs, so they want more water from the Colorado. Maintaining stream flow of tributaries is necessary for preservinghabitat and underground aquifers.
Infrared satellite photos which pick up plant growth as red, show thearea of the Colorado Delta in Mexico, the Mexicali, and San Louis Valleyas desolate, with few pale red patches, but the area of the canals inthe Imperial Valley show vibrant red. The growing population explosion in the southwest have given themunicipalities a loud voice in the fight for more water, but most of thelaws still favor agriculture. Agriculture produces economic advantages,government subsidies and facilities. The Clean Water Act sets effluentstandards for water coming from ‘point sources’ (pipes and ditches), butagricultural return flow is exempt. In 1980, the State of Arizona passedthe most stringent water management program.
This law discouragesfarmers from using Central Arizona Project (CAP) water to increaseproduction of heavy water user crops such as cotton, rice and citrus, byhaving growers cut back on ground water use equal to their use of CAPwater. The farmers can also sell their water rights to developers andlocal water systems. The City of Tucson is perhaps the most water conscience city in America. They have mandatory conservation, all golf courses and city parks usereclaimed water, or water that has been recycled. They ban outdoorfountains 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, andsome even had water patrols to cite people for wasting water, forcedpeople to conserve water or face stiff penalties. For years Californiahad ‘borrowed’ water from the upper basin and used Arizona and NewMexico’s unused portion of lower basin water. The water supply of thelower Colorado Rive Basin had, for the first time, used up its entireshare of river water.
This meant severe conservation of water. By 1990,after heavy rains in Arizona, California was again using other stateswater. People went back to their old habits of wasting precious water. Many people felt that because conservationists are always crying aboutwater shortages, they have cried wolf too often, they don ‘t believethere is a water shortage, that it is only an excuse for raising waterrates. On April 1, 1994, California State water officials said thatCalifornia is again in a drought. Many people will ignore this in viewof recent heavy rains.
People have to understand that the water is onlytransported to Southern California. If there is no rain or snow inColorado (or the Sierra’s in California’s case) it can result in watershortages. A threat of water allocation is a threat to a person or a communities wayof life. New growth actually encourages more water consumption. Newhouses mean more dish washers, washing machines and backyard pools. Thisis not the way to manage water.
A conscientious effort must be made bygovernment, 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, theprice of the water would reflect the cost of developing and distributingthe water. The highest bidder would receive the water.
In theory, themore the water costs, the more people would conserve. But agriculture isheavily subsidized and therefore prices can fluctuate. Commercial andresidential users would be subject to high water rates, with the wealthybeing able to afford most of the water. This is an unfair and unjustsystem.
A marketing system that is fair and responsible, one thatmandates conservation, should be enacted. Water needs to be dispersedequally. The 1922 compact, while good in its time, is antiquated bytoday’s standards and usage. “The politics of the Colorado River Basinis nothing more than a fabric of promise, incurred at different times,under different conditions and often for different purposes’. (3) The Colorado River could in the future be augmented by other water. Somehave suggested connecting the Columbia River to the Colorado by way ofpumps, siphons and canals.
These plans are very costly and unless waterbecomes scarce, this is not a reality. Some California coastal citieshave made plans for alternate water in times of shortage. Ocean waterdesalination plants are in the planning stages or under construction. This method of water augmentation is also very costly. Water is a social good, a public trust, should communities be able todecide independently about water use? The seven states of the ColoradoRiver Basin should follow the advice of Secretary of the Interior BruceBabbitt and form a commission, along with representatives of the FederalGovernment with input from the Colorado River Indian Tribes, to regulate,manage, control, enforce and educate the public and private sectorsregarding the Colorado River Water.
Too many agencies, too many privatewater companies all add to the confusion of the water rights of theColorado River. Water banks need to be set up. Lake Mead is designatedas a water bank for storage if all parties agree to this, but with thehistory of regulations regarding Colorado River water, there will mostlikely be a long and drawn out battle over this idea. Only the fear of no water or a severe drought seems to move passage on laws regarding thewater. People come to the Colorado River to play and enjoy the water. “Sixnational parks and recreation areas along the Colorado’s shores support amulti-million dollar recreation industry of boating, hiking, fishing andwhite water rafting”.
(4). Recreation has become a huge part of theColorado River System. This has brought loud cries from theconservationists. In 1991 the Arizona stretch of the Colorado River wasnamed the most endangered river of 1991 by American Rivers, aconservation group. Many of the fish and wildlife have disappeared.
Special areas have been designated as wildlife protection areas. TheEndangered Species Act protects the river and can be enactedindependently of the Clean Water Act. Federal Fish and Game, stateresources and conservation groups have all worked to make the publicaware of this problem. The United States Fish and Wildlife designatedthe Colorado River north of Parker Dam to Needles as a critical habitat. This was done to protect the squawfish, the razorback sucker, thehumpback, and bonytail chubs.
Sportsmen fear this could severelyhandicap recreation on Lake Havasu by limiting boating. There are other areas that have suffered from altering the ColoradoRiver. When the Alamo River Project was implemented, the natural riverbed was raised to a higher level than the surrounding land. In 1900,George Chaffey decided to run a canal through Mexico using the Colorado’sold channel to the sink in California. The canal turned north into theUnited States east of Mexicali. From there the channel, now known as theAlamo River, led almost straight north.
Chaffey called the southern halfthe Imperial Valley. In may of 1901, Colorado River water began to runinto this channel. In a few years the valley had 700 miles of irrigationditches. Settlers piled in, homesteading federal land or buying itoutright from the railroad.
To get irrigation water they had to buystock in water companies controlled by the Imperial Land Company, a frontfor Chaffey and Rockwood’s California Developing Company. By 1904 therewere 100,000 acres under irrigation. Then silt blocked up the head ofthe canal. Water delivery to farmers was all but cut off.
In the fallof 1904, The California Development Company made a cut in the river tobypass the blockage. During the spring floods of 1905, the Colorado,completely out of control, rushed through the cut and surged on to theAlamo River, it’s old overflow channel, then plunged on into the NewRiver. Digging into the soft soil, it created a 28 foot high waterfall,scouring out the river’s channel to the width of a quarter mile. Itemptied into what is today known as the Salton Sea. The Salton is a bizarre looking sea which was 45 miles long, 17 mileswide and about 80 feet deep.
After engineers got the Colorado undercontrol it should have dried up through evaporation. The sea has nooutlets and only gets about 2. 3 inches of rain per year. The sea hasbeen sustained by drainwater from the 500,000 acres of heavily wateredand fertilized growing fields of the Imperial Valley, one of the mostfruitful desert irrigation projects in history.
Agricultural waste watercarries various nutrients, including nitrates, as well as pesticides,potentially toxic levels of the element selenium, and four million tonsof salt leached from the soil every year. The Salton Sea is now a lostcity. In the late 1950’s, it was supposed to become the Golden State’sgreat new playland, an alluring combination of the desert and sea. M. Penn Phillips and other developers of Salton City bought 19,600 acresthat they subdivided on paper for house lots, shops, schools, parks andchurches.
They spent $1 million on a fresh water distribution systemwith 260 miles of water lines. They put in power lines and 250 miles ofelegantly paved streets. They built a yacht club and a $350,000 18-holegolf course. A big time gambler Ray Ryan with reputed mob connectionsbought land on the other side of the sea and sank more than $2 millioninto a resort he called the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. Unexpected rains kept raising the level of the sea and flooding shorelinehomes and buildings. A steadily growing concern set in about the water’sbrownish tinge and about pollution levels and increasing salt content.
North Shore Beach and Yacht Club is deserted today, its breakwatercrumbling to the ground, its pool full of stank rotten water. Across thewater visitors northbound on Route 86 to Salton City find not sailboatsand bikini-clad blondes on water skis, or docks full of pleasure boats,but instead a scattering of houses, RV parks, run down motels and emptylots along grassy overgrown streets. The Alamo River and the New River both feed into the Salton Sea. Bothflow north from Mexico receiving drainwater along the way. The New Riveris considered the most polluted river in the United States.
It passesthrough Mexicali, Mexico, a city of more than 750,000 people that dumpsin raw sewage, inadequately treated sewage, leachate from landfills, andindustrial and slaughter house wastes, as well as trash, toilet paper,dead dogs and phosphate detergents. The sea was for years one of the greatest fishing spots in California,and has long been one of America’s great birding spots. Birders flock toits shores, listing their sightings on clipboards maintained atornithological sites. At least 380 species have been reported, a numberexceeded in North America only by the Texas coast in spring.
Recently there have been increasing signs of trouble. Early in 1992,biologist Bill Radke of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service saw a numberof eared grebes stagger up on shore and die. Many were so disorientedthat they stood still while gulls tore into their flesh and began eatingthem on the spot.
This continued and the final death toll rose, byconservative estimates, to 150,000 grebes. Radke helped collect 40,000carcasses. Necropsies ruled out infectious disease as the cause ofdeath, but the tissues of some of the dead birds contained three timesmore selenium than that of grebes tested at the Salton Sea three yearsearlier. It is obvious that the Alamo River Project has had quite adisastrous effect on the California sink.
We must also view the goodthat it has done, no matter how polluted the Salton Sea is today. In theearly 1900’s, this project was responsible for irrigating over 100,000acres, today that number is over 500,000 acres of land. It is also alarge 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 WesternU.
S. is very dependent upon fresh water from this great river. Themajority of the water that is supplied to the Los Angeles Basin area istapped out of the Colorado River. Major towns and cities in Arizona suchas Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, and Tucson are largely dependent upon theColorado for water. The entire Southwest, in general, relies on theColorado River for it’s major source of water. Without the Colorado, itwould not be possible to have so many settlements in this beautiful andunique part of the world.
WORKS CITED(1)Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert, The American West and itsDisappearing Water, Viking Penguin, In. , New York, 1986. p. 319(2)Gary D. Weatherford. , ; F.
Lee Brown, New Courses for theColorado River, University of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe. , 1986. p. 18 (3)New Courses for the Colorado River. p. 188(4)Paul Gray, “Glen Canyon Dam”, Time, July 22, 1991.
, p. 22BIBLIOGRAPHYCarrier, Jim, “The Colorado, A River Drained Dry”, National Geographic,June 1991. , p. 4. Doerner,William R. , “Big Splash in the Arid West”, Time, November 23,1985, p.
43. Fradkin, Philip L. , A River No More, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1984. Gray, Paul, “Glen Canyon Dam”, Time, July 22, 1991. , p. 22.Hundley, N