For our latest edition of Armchair Traveler we take a look at one of America’s most scenic, yet threatened, river.
Because rivers run through me.
The gentle Suwannee. The gutted Apalachicola. The algae-breeding St. Johns. The doomed Ocklawaha.
So many great Florida rivers sacrificed on the altar of hyper-growth.
In my nearly half-century journalism career I have been obsessed with our rivers, returning to them again and again. And each time finding them a little dirtier and more stressed.
So naturally, while on vacation in northern Arizona, I wanted to get up close and personal with America’s “hardest working” river, the Colorado.
The liquid artist that carved nature’s ultimate sculpture, the Grand Canyon, out of the living rock.
The 1,450-mile behemoth that funnels life-sustaining water from Rocky Mountain snow fields to 36 million people scattered from Wyoming down into Mexico.
And a downstream rowing trip did not disappoint. Threading our way amid towering red sandstone canyons, from Horseshoe Bend to Lee’s Ferry, we could see large game fish lazing in water nearly as transparent as the Ichetucknee. And almost 25 degrees colder at that.
If Paradise had a river it would be the Colorado.
That is, if the federal Bureau of Reclamation built Paradise.
The word Colorado means red. So named by the Spanish explorers who discovered a much darker, more turbid and warmer river. Indeed, the abrasive power of its silt-laden water helped make the Grand Canyon what it is today.
But improving on nature is an American tradition.
At the Glen Canyon Dam Visitors Center you are informed that the dam was constructed “to benefit ecosystems and communities downstream …” That they made the Colorado run “cold and clear … so all can benefit.”
But other federal employees — rangers at nearby Grand Canyon National Park — complain that since the Colorado turned “cold and clear,” native fish and other species have gone missing and the ecology of the canyon floor has changed dramatically.
A small price to pay for progress, perhaps.
Because Lake Powell is itself a marvel of nature … or rather of artifice.
Flooding 185 miles of canyons has spawned a multibillion-dollar tourism trade. Marinas now host luxury house boats every bit as grand as any yacht tied up in Fort Lauderdale.
And then there’s Page. Built in the 1950s to house dam construction workers, it now sprouts hotels, resorts and luxury villas.
And a manicured emerald green golf course. And lush grass lawns and mediums. All fed by sprinklers that run in the middle of the day.
In the middle of the desert.
Since the turn of the millennium the Southwest has endured a drought of near biblical proportions. America’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Powell to the east of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead to the west — are less than half full and falling fast.
As famous as the Colorado may be, it’s equally infamous for the stresses placed upon it due to over-allocation, overuse, and more than a century of manipulation,” says American Rivers, the monitoring group that has designated the Colorado America’s most endangered river. “Following decades of wasteful water management policies and practices, demand on the river’s water now exceeds its supply.”
Yes, more water is now taken out of the Colorado than goes in. It is the law of diminishing returns in action.
Four centuries ago, Coronado ventured into the great southwestern desert in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. He came up, well, dry, because cities could not exist in such arid conditions.
Today the Cities of Gold all have names: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and more. All are growing and all fight for more of the Colorado’s diminishing supply.
Throw in competing demands of the region’s multi-billion dollar agriculture and tourism industries, and America’s hardest working river is also its most litigated.
And what will happen when the Colorado is expected to feed, not 36 million people, but 40 million? Fifty million?
John Wesley Powell told us this would happen. In 1869 the great scientist and Colorado River explorer warned: “You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights because there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”
Powell was booed down. But long after he was safely dead, they did name a reservoir in his honor.
Talk about adding insult to injury. Powell would have been appalled.
Perhaps in the end we are destined to join other civilizations that briefly flourished in this dry, arid and ultimately unsustainable landscape.
And the Colorado will once again run wild and free and untamed.