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Following the Colorado River from Moab to Mexico

For decades, visitors have toured Glen Canyon Dam. Now the Carl Hayden Visitor Center remains open but dam tours have closed. In recent years, thousands of tourists coming to Lake Powell and Page, Arizona have eschewed visiting the dam to instead see the river wrapping around Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

With the two largest reservoirs in the nation perilously low, and the Colorado River Basin experiencing the worst drought in centuries, we decided to follow the river by bus from Grand Lake into Mexico. I met the group in Moab, Utah, to provide historical interpretation. Off we went following the Rio Colorado’s sinuous course through canyon after canyon finally arriving south of Mexicali, Mexico, in the river’s dwindling delta.

Denver-based Treasure Box Tours has a number of innovative themed programs including tracing all the rivers that begin in Colorado. It’s done the Arkansas, and I signed on to help with the Colorado. On our first day we left Moab to have lunch in Bluff, Utah. On the way. I described one of the Colorado’s major tributaries, the San Juan, which I call the river of dreams. After crossing the San Juan onto the Navajo Nation at Mexican Hat, we drove through Monument Valley arriving at Page, Arizona, and the Wahweap Marina at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There we faced the drought firsthand.

(Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Looking out from under a shaded canopy, we saw miles of exposed white rock instead of beige sandstone. This is the infamous Lake Powell bathtub ring, proof of earlier lake levels at high water and how much lower lake levels are now with the reservoir at only 25% full. In a few days we would see the same white ring dramatically exposed at Hoover Dam, where volcanic rock levels are now white after decades of scouring action from waves and winds. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, has plummeted to 28% of capacity. Las Vegas has spent millions of dollars installing new pipes to get water out from the bottom of the dam. Page also needs a deeper straw. Even though the town of 9,000 sits at the edge of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, it is suffering from water shortages. Experts believe that as climate change and drought continue to sear the Southwest, large municipalities with planning departments, urban utility systems and deep pockets may be resilient. Dozens of small towns, however, will be unable to assuage their thirst.

In the cool of the morning, we hiked out for the obligatory view of Horseshoe Bend and the blue-green waters of the Colorado as it twists and turns below Glen Canyon Dam. We returned to the dam to learn more about the Colorado River Storage Project and water requirements related to the Colorado River Compact (1922), which separated the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah from the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. With hindsight, hydrologists now know that the Compact is seriously flawed.

In the early 20th century, the Colorado River was seen only as a barrier and a natural resource to be conquered. Uniting the Arizona Strip with the rest of Arizona required construction of Navajo Bridge (1927). Now, visitors take the modern bridge on the left and walk the historic Navajo Bridge on the right hoping to get a glimpse of reintroduced California condors that soar down from nesting sites on the Vermilion Cliffs. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

A century ago, representatives divided up the Colorado with the assumption that the annual flow was 17 million-acre feet (MAF). They came to those figures and agreed to the compact during one of the wettest years in a century. Whoops. The Colorado River’s annual flow may be closer to 12 MAF. An equally egregious error was to guarantee water to lower basin states in fixed annual amounts rather than in percentages of annual flow. Either the lawyers got that wrong or they did it intentionally to ensure decades of lawsuits into the 21st century. River runner and explorer John Wesley Powell had already chided southwestern boosters and enthusiastic promoters of irrigation.

At the 2nd International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles in 1893 Powell railed:

When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region … Gentlemen, it might be unpleasant for me to give you these facts … I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”

Upset conference attendees booed Powell, forcing him from the podium. In 1902, the year of his death, Congress passed the Reclamation Act providing statutory authority and funding for the 20th century orgy of dam building and urban expansion in the desert Southwest. The very word “reclamation” implied that a new government bureaucracy would bring water to the desert for small family farms, but that turned out to be false. Agribusiness took over. Having paid hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize water in California’s Imperial Valley, formerly known as the California Desert, we are now paying those same corporations millions of dollars not to plant crops as part of a short-term solution for our ongoing water problem.

A century ago when the Colorado River Compact (1922) divided the flow of the Colorado River by Upper Basin and Lower Basin states, recreational uses for fast, flowing water were never considered. Now river running like this scene near Moab, is a vital burgeoning adventure industry in Western states. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Our tour group walked across the Colorado River on the historic Navajo Bridge. At Horseshoe Bend, I spoke about endangered warm water fish not surviving in the cold waters coming out of Glen Canyon Dam. At Navajo Bridge, I spoke about the Peregrine Fund’s success bringing California condors back from the brink of extinction. We drove to Williams, Arizona, and the next day took the Grand Canyon Railway to spend an afternoon at the South Rim staring into the magnificent Grand Canyon, which Major Powell had bravely navigated in 1869.

I told stories about river rats and desert dwellers. I talked about Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River and the Kolb Brothers’ descent down the Green and Colorado with Ellsworth paddling all the way to the delta. I questioned whether or not James White had made it down the Colorado in a makeshift raft before Powell. I explained the revolutionary boat design of beaver trapper Nathaniel Galloway; the mysterious disappearance of George and Bessie Hyde on their honeymoon trip through the Grand Canyon in an Idaho-designed scow; and the solo success of Buzz Holmstrom. I spoke about two young University of Michigan biologists making the trip with Norm Nevills in his marine plywood sadiron boats. I had to tell about Katie Lee’s nearly nude hikes in Glen Canyon; Georgie White’s raucous trips in 45-foot-long rafts with inexperienced Los Angeles firemen at the oars; and a host of boatman’s stories and tall tales.

In all those whitewater narratives, river and rocks are real. Below Grand Canyon, river romance ends in flat water. In the 1930s, the story line was not about having whitewater adventures. It was about conquering the wild Colorado, taming its raging floods and using deep soil deposits that had taken millions of years to accrue. The lower Colorado is our American Nile. William Smythe wrote in Sunset Magazine: “This vast plain of opulent soil – the mighty delta of a mighty river – is rich in the potentialities of production beyond any land in our country which has ever known the plow. Yet here it has slept through the ages, dormant, useless, silent. It has stood barred and padlocked against the approach of mankind. What is the key that will unlock the door to modern enterprise and human genius? It is the Rio Colorado.”

We built Hoover Dam in 1934, Parker Dam in 1938, and miles of aqueducts, canals and small and large reservoirs. Now, the Colorado River barely makes it to Mexico though we promised 1.5 million acre feet per year in a 1946 treaty. Turning the wild Colorado River into a fully plumbed hydraulic system took decades and millions of dollars beginning with Hoover Dam. “Built at the height of the Great Depression at tremendous cost of treasure and blood, Hoover Dam was more than a technical achievement,” writes National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis in “River Notes.” “It was a symbol of national redemption and hope, a sign that in America, whatever the immediate challenges, anything could be accomplished.”

Yes, we built the dams but on a false premise. Twentieth century engineers thought Americans could harness nature, but in fact we have changed it. In an increasingly hotter, drier climate, we have raised river expectations we can no longer meet.

End of part I. Part II of “Following the Colorado River from Moab to Mexico” will describe Lake Havasu City’s London Bridge and river restoration efforts in the Mexican delta. It will run in The Durango Herald on Aug. 13.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.