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Following the Colorado River: London Bridge to the Dry Delta

Once the second most visited site in Arizona after the Grand Canyon, the London Bridge reassembled at Lake Havasu City, is adjacent to a faux British Tudor village in the hot, dry desert. Such dreams and make-believe characterize our overuse of the Colorado River which now forms Lake Havasu and 450 miles of shoreline. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

After the Civil War steamboats huffed and puffed up the Colorado River from the Gulf of California to Yuma, Arizona where they docked to supply the U.S. Army with ordnance and supplies. At Yuma the Colorado sprawled 10 miles wide. The Colorado’s vast delta in Mexico offered limitless green lagoons, millions of birds and fish, and numerous tracks of el tigre or black, silent panthers. Now at Yuma you can throw a rock across the river and in Mexico the Colorado River is lost to dusty roads, endless acres of tamarisk, and a few irrigated fields of cotton and alfalfa.

(Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Our June Treasure Box Tours trip started tracing the Colorado River at Grand Lake near Rocky Mountain National Park. I met the bus in Moab. In an earlier Durango Herald column on July 9, I described following the river to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. River stories generally end at the Grand Canyon. No one likes to paddle flat water, but that’s where other boaters begin. Houseboats once dominated Lake Powell, but now fewer and fewer boats launch and no dock exists mid-reservoir to refuel. Two or three houseboats floated on Lake Mead.

But as we crossed the Colorado at Laughlin, Nevada with high-rise casinos on the Nevada side and one-story strip malls at Bullhead City, Arizona, in the middle on the channeled and changed Colorado, speedboats and Jet Skis roared up and down in a constant promenade of noise and high wake thrillcraft. No quiet, nature-loving paddlers – just loud boats, louder music, a quick U-turn in the narrow river with plenty of sunshine, sunburn, and skimpy bathing suits on the river revelers. Grand Canyon river guides wear long sleeve shirts, broad-brimmed straw hats, and worry about skin cancer as an occupational hazard. Below Davis Dam at Laughlin none of that mattered.

A stone fountain of water-spouting lions spews Colorado River water endlessly at Lake Havasu City with average summer temperatures about 108 degrees. Despite the heat, the town has a carnival-like atmosphere with speedboats, cabanas, and stand-up paddle boarding under the London Bridge. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

As I struggled to comprehend that the wild river through the Grand Canyon and the tame wet ditch between Laughlin and Bullhead City represents the same river, nothing prepared me for the desert Disneyland of Lake Havasu City and London Bridge. Somehow, I’d been transported from sand, gravel, and cacti on rocky, treeless mountains to palm trees and miniature replica lighthouses surrounding Bridgewater Channel. British and American flags flapped. A bronze statue showed visionary American entrepreneurs unrolling maps and pointing fingers toward the future.

A pride of stone lions spewed water from their mouths into a fountain beside restaurants, cafes, and T-shirt shops. Local buildings had a faux English half-timbered Tudor style. London Bridge arched across the river channel with power boats gracefully gliding beneath it and the occasional paddling kayaker and stand-up paddleboarder flexing muscles in the afternoon light. I had thought I was in the Arizona desert. I felt like a dusty prospector who had fallen off his burro and hit his head on a rock. Somehow south Florida had been transported to southern Arizona. I needed a beer.

Incongruous in the Arizona desert, palm trees wave green fronds above sandy beaches at Lake Havasu City. This unreal seascape includes miniature replicas of historic lighthouses designed from real lighthouses still standing on the American coastline. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

I guess this is what Americans do. We change things. We modify the environment around us. We plan and build cities where none exist. Stanford University graduate Robert McCullough, a chainsaw millionaire, created Lake Havasu City on the edge of Lake Havasu with its 450 miles of shoreline. He bought 16,000 acres, started urban development with one of Walt Disney’s former planners, and in 1962 purchased the London Bridge for $2.5 million and then spent $4 million to move it in pieces through the Panama Canal, and more money to erect it on dry sand. Having built the bridge, he then removed all the dirt from underneath it to dredge Bridgewater Channel and float boats where no water had ever been. Disc golf, a golf course, sandy beaches, and rentable cabanas embrace the shoreline.

In this make-believe world no one seemed worried about low flows in the Colorado River. On our tour, traveler Diane Byers told me, “Every single person in the Southwest should come here to see the low water line at Lake Mead and then think about how much water we use.”

When I strode a walking path along Bridgewater Channel, beneath picturesque palm trees, I asked local Lake Havasu City residents if they were worried that the Colorado River, whose water is needed by 40 million residents, is in danger. Were they concerned about a diminished river? Answers were consistent. “Not quite yet,” and “Not at the moment. I hope it doesn’t get to be a problem.”

But it is a problem. We have 19th century water laws across six different states. We have a 20th century infrastructure of aging dams, canals, and aqueducts, and 21st century water needs magnified by big agriculture, climate change and ongoing drought. As Americans, we are successful with development and designing desert dreams. We can build oases where they never existed, but are we maintaining nature’s evolutionary array of flora and fauna?

Our next stop on the tour was Yuma, AZ with average summertime temperatures of 117 degrees. Across the same desert sands where Robert McCullough brought boats, in the 1850s Army Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale introduced 25 camels to transport military supplies. We’ll see how long the speedboats last. The camels didn’t fare too well.

Near Yuma, center pivot sprinklers send water into the air for a variety of crops. Yuma receives a slight four inches of annual rainfall, yet because of irrigation it is the lettuce capital of the world providing 95% of North America’s winter lettuce. At Yuma Crossing State Park, the Colorado River, a shadow of its former self, flows slowly toward Mexico so we followed the river, crossing the boundary at Calexico, California into Mexicali, Mexico.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold canoed the delta and wrote that the river was “nowhere and everywhere,” and “when a troop of egrets settled on a green willow, they looked like a premature snowstorm.” He heard the trumpeting of Sandhill cranes and noted, “We were sharing our wilderness with the wildest of living fowl. We and they had found a common home in the remote fastness of space and time; we were both back in the Pleistocene.”

Decades later Leopold would reminisce about the delta’s bird life, the numerous echoing cranes, and he would recall, “Now, far from the reaches of the years, I see them wheeling still.” Leopold wrote about the Colorado River’s delta in words that reverberate across landscapes: “Man always kills the things he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

The last regular pulse of Colorado River water into the Mexican delta occurred forty years ago when a huge melting snowpack required American dams in the Southwest to open their floodgates. Now reservoirs are nearly empty. Because of climate change the Colorado River is in crisis. Yet we have international treaty obligations to restore Mexican wetlands. Hundreds of bird, fish, and plant species are dependent upon additional water including the Yuma clapper Rail bird which is endangered on both sides of the border. These photos are from the 1,400-acre Laguna Grande Restoration Area managed by the Sonoran Institute and supported by several environmental groups. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Despite the loss of significant river flows into the delta, river restoration has begun with the Sonoran Institute spearheading a 1,400-acre plot at the Laguna Grande Restoration Area, which is dependent upon pulse river flow releases from dams to coincide with peak releases for cottonwood seeds. There has been a 16% increase in native vegetation. Migratory and nesting water birds have returned with 280 species of birds wintering there. We visited the site and talked to staff biologists who were overjoyed that beavers have chewed their way back. Wetlands are being revived. In places along the lower Colorado “an emerald necklace of biodiversity” is helping to restore original flora and fauna in national wildlife refuges, in Arizona State Parks, on Bureau of Land Management Land, and in river recreation areas. In Mexico the Allianza Revive El Rio Colorado (Alliance to Revive the Colorado River) has partners including Pro Natura, The Redford Center, the Sonoran Institute, the Audobon Society, the Nature Conservancy and Restavvemos el Colorado.

Coyote willows and cottonwoods are being replanted by hand after the hard work of removing invasive tamarisks. “When we get more water, we receive more fish and bird species. We need more water in the river,” explains biologist Thomas Riva. “Sometimes the river reaches the sea and sometimes the sea reaches the river. Little actions can make a huge difference,” states Edith Santiago, Associate Director of the Sonoran Institute’s Colorado River Delta Program. The conservation goal is to permanently have the river meet the sea.

From melting snows in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Mexican delta, our tour had followed the river. We learned much but unanswered questions remain about the future of Colorado River water. So many lives depend upon it including endangered fish, migratory birds, and the osprey we saw in the delta, perched, and patiently waiting.

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