Colorado River 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

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. 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.

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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

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

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

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.

(1)Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert, The American West and its
Disappearing Water, Viking Penguin, In., New York, 1986. p. 319
(2)Gary D. Weatherford., ; F. Lee Brown, New Courses for the
Colorado 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. 22
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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