Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Mighty Colorado

Colorado River near Westwater, Utah.
The Colorado River has some of the most diverse scenery of any river system in the United States or the world for that matter.

It truly is one of the worlds great desert rivers like the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and others.

The Colorado begins in the Rocky Mountains in the Central part of Colorado. The river crosses into southeastern, Utah and flows through the southeast corner of the state.

It exits Utah and flows into Arizona at present day Lake Powell, through the Grand Canyon, and finally joins Nevada on the Arizona and Nevada state line. From there the Colorado forms Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. It then continues along the Arizona and Nevada state line until Nevada terminates at the southern point of the state and the river forms the Arizona and California state line and then forms a small international boundary between Arizona, United States and Baja California, Mexico. Finally the river empties into the Gulf of California in Mexico.

The Colorado truly is the life blood of the Southwest. Providing irrigation water, culinary water, and other water uses to the Colorado Plateau, Mojave, and Sonoran Desert Regions of the United States and Mexico.

The first great dam on the Colorado was the Hoover Dam constructed between 1931 and 1935 along the Nevada and Arizona State line. This created Lake Mead and provided a means of control for water storage, irrigation, and electricity generation.

Other dams to follow include the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, creating Lake Powell, Parker Dam and Davis Dam along the lower river providing controls along the way for the same purpose.

These dams with their reservoirs are not just providing for water use. As with Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam generates electricity for the American West and its large power grid. Lake Mead,in Nevada and Arizona, Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, Lake Havasu on the Arizona and California state lines also provide valuable recreation for the local economies.

Cities that were created for dam construction have now diversified and become thriving communities in their own right such as Page, Arizona; Boulder City, Nevada, and Lake Havasu, Arizona.

The Colorado has major tributaries such as the Green River that flows through Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado before joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. Other major tributaries are the San Juan River flowing through New Mexico and Utah before joining the Colorado. Other notable tributaries are the Little Colorado and Virgin Rivers that flow out of the Colorado Plateau region.

Seven US States make up the Colorado River Compact. They are Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, and Nevada as these states are on the Colorado river or have major tributaries that feed the Colorado. Mexico receives water rights through a treaty with the United States.

Competition for the rivers resources is strong, especially in California. Other states with large cities like Phoenix, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada and smaller cities such as Grand Junction, Colorado; St. George, Utah; Moab, Utah; Bullhead City, Arizona; Laughlin, Nevada, and Needles, California compete with Los Angeles and the California agricultural industry for their share of the water rights. Farmington, New Mexico and Green River, Wyoming also compete for their water rights as they are on tributaries to the Colorado.

The Colorado has enabled cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas to grow beyond what the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts could support.  Power from the dams on the river is used not just in the big three cities above mentioned, but by urban centers around Albuquerque, New Mexico; Salt Lake City, Utah and the Wasatch Front in Utah; Denver, Colorado; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The river still has long stretches where river running is a popular past time and hiking in the Grand Canyon to the river is also a tourist magnet. Laughlin, Nevada casinos also use the river as a highway with boats that ferry customers back and forth from day to day and as beach front property.

The Colorado River truly is a miracle river. Once untamed and unpredictable, the river now is a multi use river for the various stakeholders.

Some want to tear down the Glen Canyon Dam to restore the river to it's previous 1963 state. Others want more water for their growing cities and now want to exercise their water rights at the expense of other stakeholders.

The American Southwest and Wyoming are in an all out water war for their own interests. Some of these competing factions only see the Colorado use for their own purposes and ignore the impact that their wishes might have on others.

We can't turn back the clock to smaller cities, less agriculture, less recreation demands, or the need for cheap power. The Colorado River and its tributaries are at capacity for use. Some years the river dries up long before it reaches Mexico. San Luis Rio Colorado is a big city on the river that has water needs as well.

So all stake holders have got to be willing to work together so that the Colorado River Basin can meet all of the industries it serves and the customers who patronize those industries. Parts of the river should be left alone and in their natural state. Other areas need to be maintained and even developed further to get water to farther away cities on the system. Tourism should be promoted on the resevoirs and electricity should continue to feed the power grid along with coal, natural gas, wind and solar sources.

There are scare mongers on the one side saying that the water will run out. Others overestimate the resources the Colorado can give. The river ultimately depends on snow in the Rockies and high elevation places on the Colorado Plateau. No snow, no water.  Engaging mainstream interests have got to be willing to compromise. Nobody gets all of what they want. Some should get none of what they want like tearing down the vital Glen Canyon Dam or overregulation of the river resources.

As one of two great river systems that drain the American West, the other being the Columbia River, the Colorado should be respected. If we are good stewards to the river, then it will continue to serve our multiple use needs for generations to come. If we go to extremes, the river we now benefit from in so many ways will not serve the many needs millions of people depend on. Long may the Colorado flow from the Rockies to the Gulf of California giving a share to all along the way.

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