Colorado River (4580 words) Essay

Colorado River
Geographers can tell you that the one thing that most rivers and their adjacent
flood plains in the world have in common is that they have rich histories
associated with human settlement and development. This especially true in arid
regions which are very dependent upon water. Two excellent examples are the Nile
and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers which show use the relationship between rivers
and concentrations of people. However, the Colorado River is not such a good
example along most segments of its course. There is no continuous transportation
system that parallels the rivers course, and settlements are clustered. The
rugged terrain and entrenched river channels are the major reasons for sparse
human settlement. We ask ourselves, did the Colorado River help or hinder
settlement in the Western United States? As settlers began to move westward, the
Southwest was considered to be a place to avoid. Few considered it a place to
traverse, to spread Christianity, and a possible source of furs or mineral
wealth. Finding a reliable or accessible water source, and timber for building
was 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 already
established. Trails, roads, and railroads linked several areas with neighboring
regions. Although the Colorado River drainage system was still not integrated.

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In the mid 1900’s many dams had been built to harness and use the water. A new
phase of development occurred at the end of the second World War. There was a
large emphasis on recreation, tourism, and environmental preservation. The
terrain of the Colorado River is very unique. It consists of Wet Upper Slopes,
Irregular Transition Plains and Hills, Deep Canyonlands, and the Dry Lower
Plains. Wet Upper Slopes: Consist of numerous streams that feed into the
Colorado River from stream cut canyons, small flat floored valleys often
occupied by alpine lakes and adjacent steep walled mountain peaks. These areas
are heavily forested and contain swiftly flowing streams, rapids, and
waterfalls. These areas have little commercial value except as watershed,
wildlife habitat, forest land, and destinations for hikers, fishermen, and
mountaineers. Irregular Transition Plains and Hills: These areas are favorable
for traditional economic development. It consists of river valleys with adequate
flat land to support farms and ranches. Due to the rolling hills, 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 least developed area along the Colorado River. These deep gorges
are primarily covered by horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks, of which sand
stone is the most abundant. The Grand Canyon does not only display spectacular
beauty, but numerous other features such as mesas, buttes, spires, balancing
rocks, natural arches and bridges, sand dunes, massive sandstone walls, and
pottholed cliffs. Dry Lower Plains: These consist of the arid desert areas.

These areas encounter hot summers and mild winters. Early settlement was limited
because most of the land next to the river was not well suited for irrigation
agriculture. The area is characterized by limited flat land, poor soils, poor
drainage, and too hot of conditions for most traditional crops. The Colorado
River was first navigated by John Wesley Powell, in his 1869 exploration through
the Marble and Grand Canyons. The Colorado River begins high in the Colorado
Rocky Mountains. The water begins 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 million
tons 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 most
popular, which is visited by numerous tourists every year, plays a large role in
western 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 certain
points along the river, it turns into a raging, muddy, rapid covered mass of
water. Unlike other rivers, the Colorado River doesn’t meet the ocean in a
grand way, but rather in a small trickle. Almost all of the water that passes
down the river is spoken for. It passes through seven Western States, travels
1,700 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 used
for commerce, or any degree of navigation other than recreational, and virtually
ignored until the turn of the century. The Colorado River is the most fought
over, litigated, and legislated river in the United States. The upper Colorado
passes through mountainous, less populated country. It has seen fewer problems
that the lower Colorado. The lower Colorado, which passes through canyons and
arid desert, serves a more populated area. It has been a large source of
arguments for the state of California and surrounding areas since the early
1900’s. The first project on the Colorado River was the Alamo River Project
near Yuma, Arizona. Sediment from the upper river was transported and deposited
down river. It raised the river bed so the river was higher than the surrounding
land, making water easy to divert for irrigation. The Alamo Canal diverted water
from the Colorado River to the Alamo River, and traveled 60 miles through Mexico
across the Mexicali desert to the Salton Sink, a depression in the Imperial
Valley. For this, Mexico received the right to take half the water from the
canal, the rest went to the Imperial Valley. Although it may have seemed like an
easy way to divert the water, the Alamo Canal was no match for the untamed
Colorado River. In 1905 a series of floods breached the intake and flooded the
Imperial Valley, settling in the Salton Sea. After tremendous amounts of
manpower and money, the river was returned to its original path. This disaster
alarmed the landowners of the valley. The Imperial Irrigation District of
Southern California was the largest single user of Colorado River water. They
campaigned for an All-American Canal. One that would divert the river above the
Mexican border and leave the Mexicali desert with what they didn’t use. This was
met with much opposition from the largest landowner in the Mexican desert, a
syndicate of wealthy Los Angeles businessmen, headed by Harry Chandler of the
Los Angeles Times. The Imperial Valley landowners received support from the City
of Los Angeles. The city was growing rapidly and the need for future electric
power 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 and
flooding. The two forces combined to work for a Dam in Boulder Canyon on the
Colorado River. In Salt Lake City in January 1919, representatives from the
seven states that have tributaries emptying into the Colorado River met.

“The water should first be captured and used while it is young, for then it
can be recaptured as it returns from the performance of its duties and thus be
used over and over again “.(1) On Nov. 24, 1922, the seven states signed
the 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 states
included Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The Lower states included
Arizona, California and Nevada. Each area received 7.5 million acre feet of
water, with the lower basin getting an extra 1 million acre feet annually from
its tributaries. The allocation of river water was based on an annual flow at
Lee’s Ferry of 16.5 million acre feet. This was later found to be inaccurate and
did not take into account the rivers dry years. A more accurate flow is 13.5
million acre feet per year. In addition, any water given to Mexico by
international treaty would be supplied first from the surplus above the total of
16 million acre feet, and if this was not sufficient, the deficiency would be
shared equally by the two basins. The consensus was that the river and its
tributaries 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 therefore
they deserved very little. Herbert Hoover stated, “We do not believe they
(Mexicans) ever had any rights.” The Indian tribes along the river were
treated the same way. Hoover inserted what was called the ‘Wild Indian Article’,
“nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of
the United States of America to Indian tribes.” (2) It’s obvious that the
native Mexicans and Indians were being deprived of what originally belonged to
them. The attitude of Herbert Hoover left the local peoples with a taste of
resentment. The Colorado River Pact did not apportion water to individual
states. Arizona would not ratify the pact, feeling that California was taking
all 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 the
largest single users of the water, but would contribute nothing. California
finally agreed to some concessions. All the waters of the Gila River in Arizona
would go to Arizona, and be exempted from the Mexican Treaty. California also
agreed to apportion 0.3 million acre feet of water to Nevada, 4.4 million acre
feet and 1/2 of the surplus to California, 2.8 million acre feet to Arizona and
the other 1/2 of the surplus. Arizona was still not satisfied. The argument went
on for years, with Congress finally passing the Boulder Canyon Act in 1928
without Arizona’s ratification. The Boulder Canyon Act of 1928 authorized the
construction of a hydro-electric plant at Black Canyon. The cost to be off-set
by the selling of electric power over a total of 50 years. All power privileges
at the dam were to be controlled by private interest. The Metropolitan Water
District controlled 36%, City of LA 19%, Arizona 18%, and Nevada 18%. The act
also included the construction of the All-American Canal, starting at Laguna Dam
and crossing 75 miles of Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea. Arizona’s share of
the 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 fight
California for it. In 1930 Arizona filed what was to be many lawsuits against
the State of California for more water rights. It wasn’t until Arizona was
granted electricity from Hoover Dam, and given assurances for the Central
Arizona Project, that Arizona ratified the 1922 Colorado River Compact, 22 years
later. Nevada, the one state that has no major river, was largely unpopulated at
this time and remained unconcerned about the water allocation. During this time,
The Federal Bureau of Reclamation built Davis Dam, 66 miles below Hoover Dam to
further regulate flows and provide storage. Parker Dam, below Davis was built in
1934 to facilitate the 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct. This was another
of Metropolitan Water District’s projects to transport water to Los Angeles.

With Hoover and Parker, California could receive 5.6 million acre feet from the
Colorado River. Mexico saw its share of the river water drying up with the
control of the water at Hoover Dam. In 1944 the United States, wanting to
continue a good relationship with her neighbor, signed an agreement with Mexico
giving them 1.5 million acre feet per year, with nothing said about the quality
of the water. Mexico water, due to return irrigation water from United States
fields and evaporation was increasingly saline. Additional water to flush the
salts was tried, but the condition worsened. By 1955, the Mexicali Valley was a
leading cotton producing region. By 1960, growing salinity of river water hurt
the cotton crop along with the decline in cotton prices. Mexico and the United
States argued over the quality of water, and due to the administration’s
“Good Neighbor Policy”, the United States acquiesced, and in 1973
signed a water agreement with Mexico. United States reduced salt by releasing
more water upstream, the quality of water arriving at Morelos Dam was to be
equal in quality to water behind Imperial Dam. The silt was to be removed by the
giant desilting works at Imperial Dam, and then the water was returned to the
river above Morelos Dam at the Imperial Irrigation District Pilot Knob power
drop. This policy promised Mexico that salinity levels would be no more than 115
parts per million. It also obligated the United States to assume all costs
necessary to meet the salinity levels. As a result, the United States agreed to
upstream salt control projects in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and a 260 Million
dollar desalination plant in Yuma, Arizona. The desalination plant reclaims more
than 70 million gallons of drainage water a day from the Welton-Mohawk
irrigation project. Fifty miles from the Mexican border is Laguna Salada, the
end of the Colorado River. An unlined canal carries the water 50 miles and then
empties it onto the flat plain of sand and silt where the Sea of Cortez washes
the last drops into the gulf. The Mexican water irrigates soil for 14,000
farmers and supplies drinking water for the Mexicali Valley. A 76 mile aqueduct
provides water for Tijuana, Mexico. It was not until 1964 that Arizona finally
got 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 3.5
million dollar project pumps water from Lake Havasu, 824 feet up and over the
Buckskin Mountains through a 7 mile tunnel along a concrete aqueduct 333 miles
to the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. The Central Arizona Project was built by
the Bureau of Reclamation and finished in 1991. In 1963 in Arizona vs.

California, the Supreme Court allocated 900,000 acre feet of Colorado River
water to 5 Indian tribes along the river, and 79,000 acre feet for federal
lands. This gives them sufficient water to meet needs of reservation. Recently
the tribes have reasoned that farm lands were omitted from the original estimate
and that they want more water rights. If tribes receive more water, this could
mean less water for the lower basin. Opponents argue that the Navajo Tribe
bargained away some rights for other developments, such as the huge coal burning
power plant on Lake Powell. The Federal Governments outlook is, “why give
the tribes more water?” They gave away their rights, and the Federal
government does not have the money for water irrigation projects that would
benefit so few people. There is another side to the Indian issue, “first in
time, first in right”. this means that the Indians were there first, before
the laws, so therefore the Indians have first right to the water. This would put
a totally different slant on distribution of Colorado River water, but most
people feel that this issue would be tied up in litigation for years, and
because of the benefits of so few, the Indians would likely lose. Citizens
groups have become more vocal in the management of the lower Colorado River
Basin. The river water has historically been given to agricultural uses. In
recent times, urban sprawl has infringed on the agriculture, 80% of the Colorado
river water is still used for crops, but scarcity and expensive water is
limiting the agriculture. The Imperial Valley Irrigation district wastes about
15% of its water. Conservation has led to the lining of canals with cement. This
had brought about charges that it prevents seepage from filling ground water
aquifers. Water experts fear that depleting local water supplies will empty
underground reservoirs, so they want more water from the Colorado. Maintaining
stream flow of tributaries is necessary for preserving habitat and underground
aquifers. Infrared satellite photos which pick up plant growth as red, show the
area of the Colorado Delta in Mexico, the Mexicali, and San Louis Valley as
desolate, with few pale red patches, but the area of the canals in the Imperial
Valley show vibrant red. The growing population explosion in the southwest have
given the municipalities a loud voice in the fight for more water, but most of
the laws still favor agriculture. Agriculture produces economic advantages,
government subsidies and facilities. The Clean Water Act sets effluent standards
for water coming from ‘point sources’ (pipes and ditches), but agricultural
return flow is exempt. In 1980, the State of Arizona passed the most stringent
water management program. This law discourages farmers from using Central
Arizona Project (CAP) water to increase production of heavy water user crops
such as cotton, rice and citrus, by having growers cut back on ground water use
equal to their use of CAP water. The farmers can also sell their water rights to
developers and local 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 use reclaimed water, or water that has been recycled. They ban
outdoor fountains and utilize low flow toilets and showers. The city has cut
their water consumption 25% since 1974. Sadly, most of the west has not
practiced water conservation. The recent six year drought in Southern
California, when many of the cities were required to conserve water, and some
even had water patrols to cite people for wasting water, forced people to
conserve water or face stiff penalties. For years California had ‘borrowed’
water from the upper basin and used Arizona and New Mexico’s unused portion of
lower basin water. The water supply of the lower Colorado Rive Basin had, for
the first time, used up its entire share of river water. This meant severe
conservation of water. By 1990, after heavy rains in Arizona, California was
again using other states water. People went back to their old habits of wasting
precious water. Many people felt that because conservationists are always crying
about water shortages, they have cried wolf too often, they don ‘t believe there
is a water shortage, that it is only an excuse for raising water rates. On April
1, 1994, California State water officials said that California is again in a
drought. Many people will ignore this in view of recent heavy rains. People have
to understand that the water is only transported to Southern California. If
there is no rain or snow in Colorado (or the Sierra’s in California’s case) it
can result in water shortages. A threat of water allocation is a threat to a
person or a communities way of life. New growth actually encourages more water
consumption. New houses mean more dish washers, washing machines and backyard
pools. This is not the way to manage water. A conscientious effort must be made
by government, and residents to share the water equally and conserve water
equally. In 1980 legislature authorized the transfer of water rights, or water
marketing. Some people believed this would lead to an open market, the price of
the water would reflect the cost of developing and distributing the water. The
highest bidder would receive the water. In theory, the more the water costs, the
more people would conserve. But agriculture is heavily subsidized and therefore
prices can fluctuate. Commercial and residential users would be subject to high
water rates, with the wealthy being able to afford most of the water. This is an
unfair and unjust system. A marketing system that is fair and responsible, one
that mandates conservation, should be enacted. Water needs to be dispersed
equally. The 1922 compact, while good in its time, is antiquated by today’s
standards and usage. “The politics of the Colorado River Basin is 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. Some have suggested connecting the
Columbia River to the Colorado by way of pumps, siphons and canals. These plans
are very costly and unless water becomes scarce, this is not a reality. Some
California coastal cities have made plans for alternate water in times of
shortage. Ocean water desalination 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 to decide independently
about water use? The seven states of the Colorado River Basin should follow the
advice of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and form a commission, along
with representatives of the Federal Government with input from the Colorado
River Indian Tribes, to regulate, manage, control, enforce and educate the
public and private sectors regarding the Colorado River Water. Too many
agencies, too many private water companies all add to the confusion of the water
rights of the Colorado River. Water banks need to be set up. Lake Mead is
designated as a water bank for storage if all parties agree to this, but with
the history of regulations regarding Colorado River water, there will most
likely 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 the water. People
come to the Colorado River to play and enjoy the water. “Six national parks
and recreation areas along the Colorado’s shores support a multi-million dollar
recreation industry of boating, hiking, fishing and white water rafting”.

(4). Recreation has become a huge part of the Colorado River System. This has
brought loud cries from the conservationists. In 1991 the Arizona stretch of the
Colorado River was named the most endangered river of 1991 by American Rivers, a
conservation group. Many of the fish and wildlife have disappeared. Special
areas have been designated as wildlife protection areas. The Endangered Species
Act protects the river and can be enacted independently of the Clean Water Act.

Federal Fish and Game, state resources and conservation groups have all worked
to make the public aware of this problem. The United States Fish and Wildlife
designated the Colorado River north of Parker Dam to Needles as a critical
habitat. This was done to protect the squawfish, the razorback sucker, the
humpback, and bonytail chubs. Sportsmen fear this could severely handicap
recreation on Lake Havasu by limiting boating. There are other areas that have
suffered from altering the Colorado River. When the Alamo River Project was
implemented, the natural river bed was raised to a higher level than the
surrounding land. In 1900, George Chaffey decided to run a canal through Mexico
using the Colorado’s old channel to the sink in California. The canal turned
north into the United States east of Mexicali. From there the channel, now known
as the Alamo River, led almost straight north. Chaffey called the southern half
the Imperial Valley. In may of 1901, Colorado River water began to run into this
channel. In a few years the valley had 700 miles of irrigation ditches. Settlers
piled in, homesteading federal land or buying it outright from the railroad. To
get irrigation water they had to buy stock in water companies controlled by the
Imperial Land Company, a front for Chaffey and Rockwood’s California
Developing Company. By 1904 there were 100,000 acres under irrigation. Then silt
blocked 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 river
to bypass the blockage. During the spring floods of 1905, the Colorado,
completely out of control, rushed through the cut and surged on to the Alamo
River, it’s old overflow channel, then plunged on into the New River. 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. It emptied into what is today
known as the Salton Sea. The Salton is a bizarre looking sea which was 45 miles
long, 17 miles wide and about 80 feet deep. After engineers got the Colorado
under control it should have dried up through evaporation. The sea has no
outlets and only gets about 2.3 inches of rain per year. The sea has been
sustained by drainwater from the 500,000 acres of heavily watered and fertilized
growing fields of the Imperial Valley, one of the most fruitful desert
irrigation projects in history. Agricultural waste water carries various
nutrients, including nitrates, as well as pesticides, potentially toxic levels
of the element selenium, and four million tons of salt leached from the soil
every year. The Salton Sea is now a lost city. In the late 1950’s, it was
supposed to become the Golden State’s great new playland, an alluring
combination of the desert and sea. M. Penn Phillips and other developers of
Salton 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 water
distribution system with 260 miles of water lines. They put in power lines and
250 miles of elegantly paved streets. They built a yacht club and a $350,000
18-hole golf course. A big time gambler Ray Ryan with reputed mob connections
bought land on the other side of the sea and sank more than $2 million into a
resort he called the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. Unexpected rains kept
raising the level of the sea and flooding shoreline homes and buildings. A
steadily growing concern set in about the water’s brownish tinge and about
pollution levels and increasing salt content. North Shore Beach and Yacht Club
is deserted today, its breakwater crumbling to the ground, its pool full of
stank rotten water. Across the water visitors northbound on Route 86 to Salton
City find not sailboats and bikini-clad blondes on water skis, or docks full of
pleasure boats, but instead a scattering of houses, RV parks, run down motels
and empty lots along grassy overgrown streets. The Alamo River and the New River
both feed into the Salton Sea. Both flow north from Mexico receiving drainwater
along the way. The New River is considered the most polluted river in the United
States. It passes through Mexicali, Mexico, a city of more than 750,000 people
that dumps in raw sewage, inadequately treated sewage, leachate from landfills,
and industrial 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 to its shores, listing their sightings on clipboards maintained at
ornithological sites. At least 380 species have been reported, a number exceeded
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 number of eared grebes stagger up on shore and
die. Many were so disoriented that they stood still while gulls tore into their
flesh and began eating them on the spot. This continued and the final death toll
rose, by conservative estimates, to 150,000 grebes. Radke helped collect 40,000
carcasses. Necropsies ruled out infectious disease as the cause of death, but
the tissues of some of the dead birds contained three times more selenium than
that of grebes tested at the Salton Sea three years earlier. It is obvious that
the Alamo River Project has had quite a disastrous effect on the California
sink. We must also view the good that it has done, no matter how polluted the
Salton Sea is today. In the early 1900’s, this project was responsible for
irrigating 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 settlement
in 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 the
water that is supplied to the Los Angeles Basin area is tapped out of the
Colorado River. Major towns and cities in Arizona such as Phoenix, Tempe,
Scottsdale, and Tucson are largely dependent upon the Colorado for water. The
entire Southwest, in general, relies on the Colorado River for it’s major
source of water. Without the Colorado, it would not be possible to have so many
settlements in this beautiful and unique part of the world.

Carrier, 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


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