Contested Waters: An Environmental History of the Colorado River

Contested Waters: An Environmental History of the Colorado River

by April R. Summitt


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"To fully understand this river and its past, one must examine many separate pieces of history scattered throughout two nations--seven states within the United States and two within Mexico--and sort through a large amount of scientific data. One needs to be part hydrologist, geologist, economist, sociologist, anthropologist, and historian to fully understand the entire story. Despite this river's narrow size and meager flow, its tale is very large indeed."
-From the conclusion

The Colorado River is a vital resource to urban and agricultural communities across the Southwest, providing water to 30 million people. Contested Waters tells the river's story-a story of conquest, control, division, and depletion.

Beginning in prehistory and continuing into the present day, Contested Waters focuses on three important and often overlooked aspects of the river's use: the role of western water law in its over-allocation, the complexity of power relationships surrounding the river, and the concept of sustainable use and how it has been either ignored or applied in recent times. It is organized in two parts, the first addresses the chronological history of the river and long-term issues, while the second examines in more detail four specific topics: metropolitan perceptions, American Indian water rights, US-Mexico relations over the river, and water marketing issues. Creating a complete picture of the evolution of this crucial yet over-utilized resource, this comprehensive summary will fascinate anyone interested in the Colorado River or the environmental history of the Southwest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607329084
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 03/15/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

April R. Summit is an assistant professor of history at Arizona State University, Polytechnic Campus.

Read an Excerpt

Contested Waters

An Environmental History of the Colorado River

By April R. Summitt

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-211-5


Conquering the Wild Colorado

* * *

The River before 1945

Of the images that come to mind when one thinks of the arid American West, one of the most prominent is the Hoover Dam. Constructed from 1931 to 1936 during the most painful years of the Great Depression, this colossal structure symbolized multiple ideals for struggling Americans: the power of humans over the environment, the successful joining of federal power and individual ingenuity, and the validation of American capitalism and democracy in the midst of crisis and doubt. By far the tallest and largest dam on earth when it was constructed, this concrete structure is still one of the most impressive. Although today at least thirty-two dams worldwide are taller and even more have larger volumes, the Hoover Dam remains one of the most inspiring structures in the United States.

While seven large dams and around a dozen smaller ones straddle its banks, the Colorado River itself is less impressive. The Colorado River ranks seventh in length and watershed size in the United States, but its somewhat meager flow places it far below at least twenty other American rivers. The importance of this long and unpredictable ribbon of water with an erratic cycle of flood and drought, however, cannot be overstated. At least 30 million people depend on the river's waters.

As the River Flows

Before people dammed and harnessed it, the Colorado was a wild and unpredictable river, prone to cyclical floods and drought according to the seasons. The main source for its water comes from snowpack in the Rocky Mountains that melts in the spring and summer and pours down into valleys, going wherever gravity and landscape take it. Flowing through seven southwestern US states and two Mexican states, the river and its many tributaries drain approximately 246,000 square miles. With an average flow of 15 million acre-feet (MAF) annually, it is the lifeline of the entire region.

Along the 1,500 miles of river are many canyons, the deepest of which is the Grand Canyon, one of the only natural landmarks on earth that is visible from space. There are many other canyons, gorges, and a variety of landscapes along this long river. Close to seventy tributaries feed the main stem, but the four primary ones are the Green River in Wyoming, the Gunnison in Colorado, the San Juan that passes through New Mexico into Utah, and the Gila in Arizona. The Colorado's waters once contained one of the world's largest numbers of fish species native only to its ecosystem. Biologists assert that at least sixteen unique species once lived exclusively in the Colorado River.

Water comes to the Colorado River watershed primarily from two sources: precipitation and accumulation of snowpack in the Rockies, and the summer North American monsoon. These two annual events create interesting seasonal and inter-annual hydro-logical variability in the basin. When snowpack melts in spring, the water seeps into the ground, recharging the aquifers, while the remainder flows down into streams that feed rivers — including the Colorado. As this melting snowpack increases water flow, the Colorado has experienced dramatic spring floods, at least during the years before human alteration of the river. In the summer, the monsoon is a change of wind pattern that brings moisture from the subtropical Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico up into the lower basin region. Most of the river's annual flow comes during the months of April to July from melting snowpack. Monsoon storms add to the flow of the main stem and tributaries in the lower part of the basin in July and August.

In addition to the seasonal changes in flow, there are inter-annual variations caused by atmospheric circulation patterns, including El Niño or La Niña events, as well as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). An El Niño event is caused by trade winds that blow west across the tropical Pacific Ocean, creating a warming effect. Lasting generally between six and eighteen months, El Niño usually creates increased precipitation and flooding, especially in the lower Colorado basin. La Niña events are periods when trade winds increase over the eastern and central Pacific, generally causing colder ocean temperatures. This event often results in a much lower amount of precipitation, with less snowpack in the mountains and low river flows or drought. The less familiar PDO event creates periods of warmer or cooler temperatures in the Pacific for much longer cycles of 30 to 50 years. The water will be either predominantly cool or warm for stretches of 15 to 25 years during one or the other variation.

These details mean that the Colorado River watershed has a natural pattern of variations in climate and precipitation both within years and within long stretches of time, creating cyclical wet periods alternating with long and sometimes very intense drought. During the early twentieth century, when records of the river's flow were kept, a lot of variation occurred. Between 1905 and 1922 the river's flow was high, averaging 16.5 MAF. More recently, US Geological Survey records show that the highest flow occurred in 1984 at 22.2 MAF and the lowest was in 2002 at only 3.8 MAF (see figure 1.1).

Currently, the flow is affected by climate change as well as other factors such as dust. Recent studies have shown that when dust covers snow because of high levels of agriculture and overgrazing, the snow melts faster, causing a quicker rate of evaporation from vegetation and resulting in less runoff. Climate change studies predict that increasing global temperatures could affect the Colorado River by lowering flow levels between 7 and 20 percent.

Although current figures are disturbing, understanding the river's past is important for finding solutions in the present. Beyond expected climate change, other actions of humans specific to the river have changed its nature, altered its flow, and impacted the entire bioregion. What follows in this chapter is a tracing of the early history of the Colorado River up to 1945. Within this story, one can see two distinct phases in the human relationship with the river. In the first, explorers and settlers wrestled with the wild river, finding themselves at the mercy of its whims. In the second phase, engineers and politicians took control of the Colorado during a great dam-building era and bent it to human will. While this apparent victory of humanity over nature symbolized for westerners the triumphant march of progress, conflict over shares of the Colorado's life-giving water soon dominated the human partnership with the river. The relationship became unsustainable.

Early Exploration

Scholars assume that the first non-indigenous people to see the Colorado River were the Spanish conquistadors Coronado sent north to search for the fabled "seven cities of gold." The first written record of the Colorado River comes from Francisco de Ulloa, who explored part of the river's mouth at the Gulf of California in 1539. Sent by Hernán Cortés to explore up the Pacific Coast, Ulloa is credited with drawings of the Baja Peninsula that made cartographers assume California was an island. The next record comes from another Spanish explorer, Hernando de Alarcón, who worked with Coronado's exploration of western North America. In 1540 Alarcón explored the Colorado River up to the present site of Yuma, Arizona.

A few other Spaniards explored the river right after Alarcón's expedition, including Melchior Díaz and García López de Cárdenas. The latter was the first non-indigenous person on record to view the Grand Canyon. After the 1540s, no other exploration of the area entered the records, but cartographers illustrated the mystical region and gave the river several names. The most common name from the Spanish maps and carried on by other European mapmakers was Rio del Tizon, meaning "River of Embers." This name was presumably given by Díaz, who named the river for the way he saw local native peoples staying warm in cold weather. Eventually, the name Colorado or Colorade began to show up on various maps of the region, sometimes referring to the Gila River or other tributaries and sometimes to what we know as the Colorado today. By the 1740s, some maps started to replace the name Tizon with Colorado, Spanish for "red river."

In the years that followed, the Colorado River basin region remained largely unexplored and unmapped. Most maps of North America showed a large blank in the Southwest, with only a few notations and incorrect assumptions that a river led to an enormous inland lake or that California was an island. Some fur trappers and explorers went down part of the Colorado River around 1812, not long after the explorations of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Knowledge of what became known as the "South Pass" through the Continental Divide was shared among trappers during these early years but had been largely forgotten a little more than a decade later when Jedediah Smith began his travels through the region. Smith rediscovered the pass in 1824, and other mountain men and traders started using this crossing, which took them in and out of the Colorado River basin on their trek to California and the Pacific Coast.

The South Pass would eventually provide a major migration route for more explorers, gold prospectors, Mormons, and many others who went west in the years after Smith's travels. Passage along that route took many across the Green River, the major northerly tributary of the Colorado River. Eventually, maps began to show more and more of the Colorado's headwaters and tributaries but still left blank a great deal of space in the river's middle. Once the Mormon migration began in 1847 and the California Gold Rush started in 1849, caravans of people moved across the upper basin of the Colorado River through present-day Wyoming. In later years, Mormon migration south into Arizona would bring them across the river at other places far below the Grand Canyon.

In the decades that followed, more than 300,000 settlers migrated to California, passing through the Colorado River basin region. No one stayed there; the goal was to get through the dry and desolate country as quickly as possible to reach California, the Promised Land. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, this desirable paradise became part of the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Forced to the peace table, Mexicans agreed to cede their claim to the North American Southwest — including all of present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. Texas had already gained independence from Mexico a little more than a decade before, and in 1848 it was officially annexed. With the exception of a small piece of land along the present Mexico-Arizona border known as the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, the geographic shape of the United States was complete.

As various motives pushed and pulled Americans to the far West, an interesting kind of organization evolved as a way to find order in wild chaos. Although it would be challenged and fought over, a new water law developed to address the region's specific conditions. In the rest of the country and in much of Europe, riparian water law formed the basis of most water rights. Growing out of English common law traditions, this riparian doctrine stipulated that whoever owned the land adjacent to a water source owned the right to a proportional amount of its water. Such rights also implied that water users would not impede the rights of others who used the same water source. Under this law, water could not be transferred outside of a watershed or be sold separately from adjacent land.

This principle worked adequately in the eastern part of the country but not in the West, where water was often located many miles from where humans lived and farmed. Growing out of ad hoc rules gold miners had settled on to keep the peace, the doctrine of prior appropriation meant that whoever arrived first and mined the gold or land or water had priority rights to it. These miners' codes eventually became legal statutes, and the influence of prior appropriation is evident in the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1872 General Mining Act. As it evolved, whoever had physical control of water had the right to divert it to any "beneficial use." This stipulation was meant to ensure that individuals or companies did not hoard water, a scarce resource in the arid West. One could not simply "own" water and keep others from using it. Beneficial use dictated that whoever diverted or claimed the water had to actually use it for some tangible and beneficial purpose.

One of the assumptions behind prior appropriation law and particularly the beneficial use principle was that water users would seek legal redress if another user took more than his or her share or polluted water used by those downstream. One of the problems with this assumption is the cost of lawsuits. Financial costs of litigation might be higher than the costs of dealing with pollution, for example. As the twentieth century progressed, it became increasingly difficult to identify pollution sources and thus the party to pursue in court. Prior appropriation law encouraged people to use more water, regardless of whether they needed it, before someone else took it without enough incentive to ensure protection of other users' interests. This unsustainable relationship with the river remains the basis of present western water law.

Although western migration and exploration were slowed by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the years that followed saw huge waves of migration west across the Colorado River. Thirty-six-year-old Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell became the river's next and perhaps last great explorer. In 1869 he led an expedition down the Green River to the main body of the Colorado River, determined to explore the length of the Grand Canyon and complete the map of this great southwestern river. Against all odds, he and most of his men made it through alive to tell their stories. Powell led another expedition in 1871 and published detailed records and maps of the river after that journey.

In the years following his expeditions, Powell used his expertise as a geologist to work as director of the US Geological Survey. In this position he was responsible for further exploration, mapping, and planning for irrigation and land use. In 1878 Powell issued a report on the American West and his views of its needs and potential. This landmark study was largely ignored at the time of its publication, but within it are the foundations for reclamation projects in the twentieth century.

In his report, Powell paid specific attention to the Colorado River basin, labeling it the "arid region." He further subdivided the basin into districts he called irrigable lands, forest areas, and pasturelands. These three areas would be valuable for different reasons, but he did argue that low areas near streams — irrigable lands — would prove amenable to agriculture with the right irrigation support. Early in his report, he asserted that agriculture might actually never work well in the Colorado River basin because it experienced regular periodic droughts.

Powell's main argument, however, was that the arid region of the West would never succeed agriculturally without large-scale government planning. He argued firmly that individual farmers would seldom be able to construct or afford the necessary irrigation infrastructure. He used the Mormons as an example of successful irrigation, with a church organization to organize and fund irrigation projects. Powell believed that without this kind of structured planning, most western irrigable lands would never be used successfully. He further argued that large water storage reservoirs would have to be constructed to ensure adequate water supply year-round. In general, however, Powell's vision was one of yeoman farmers settling on homesteads in the West and cooperating with others in creating water districts that would conform to basic government laws for western water. He warned against a lack of control and advocated passing strict laws on land allocations, keeping land grants small enough to properly irrigate, and creating strong oversight of all water issues.

Powell's advice was heard but largely ignored because representatives of western regions and states did not like his suggestions. They wanted government support for large-scale projects, and, unlike Powell, they foresaw transporting water out of one watershed to another when needed. Economist Lisi Krall has argued that while Powell understood the need for cooperation, he had a naive belief in the notion of a kind of "enlightened capitalism where people are sensitive to the limitations of the land." In fact, market capitalism assumes individualism and accumulation of property and, in Krall's words, "alienation from the land rather than sensitivity to it." Such an alienation or disconnection from the land also meant a similar disconnection from the water that made that land usable for agriculture.


Excerpted from Contested Waters by April R. Summitt. Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

Part I A River through Time

1 Conquering the Wild: Colorado: The River before 1945 3

2 Farming the Desert: Agricultural Water Demands 31

3 Saving the River: The Environmental Movement 61

4 Sharing the Shortage: A River in Control 87

Part II Currents of Today

5 The Metropolis and the Desert: Growing Cities in the West 113

6 Owning the River: Indian Water Rights and Settlements 149

7 Crossing the Border: US-Mexico Relations and the River 177

8 The Water Market: Banking and Selling the Colorado River 207

Conclusion 233

Bibliography 247

Index 275

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