THE RIVER REVISITED : The Colorado is the Most Used, Politicized and Tightly Controlled River in the West. How Is It Aging? A Veteran Colorado-Watcher Takes a 1,700-Mile Catch-up Odyssey

Fradkin, <i> a former Times writer, is the author of six books, including "A River No More: the Colorado River and the West" and "The Seven States of California: a Natural and Human History." </i>

It had been more than a dozen years since Goldie Guldenschuh, the chief pilot for a Yuma, Ariz., charter service, had flown over the Colorado River delta. The flight passed over the hub of the cocaine corridor, where most of the Columbian drug cartels’ product was unloaded from airplanes for shipment to the streets of Southern California. The flat river delta in Mexico was an ideal place for remote landing strips. There was hardly any other reason to fly in a small plane over the most desolate and inhospitable landscape on the North American continent.

On this morning, Guldenschuh, a self-described desert rat pushing 70, interviewed me at length. He wanted to make sure my purpose was to photograph and write about the delta, which stretches from just below Yuma to the Gulf of California, before he agreed to the unusual flight. The last passenger he had flown over the delta was a kayaker who wanted to scout the maze of channels leading to the gulf during the 1983 floods.

The plane was cleared for takeoff shortly before 8:30 a.m., and we headed west into Mexico. A few minutes later, Guldenschuh said, “There’s the mighty Colorado River.” There it was, indeed, a thin trickle just below the last of 17 major dams and numerous diversions. Those large public works stored and transported the water that was spread over 2 million irrigated acres and was consumed by more than 21 million people and in seven states and two countries.


Then it disappeared. The Colorado sank into the sand and became a braided, dry riverbed until it popped up again near the intersection of some unlined irrigation canals. This disappearing and reappearing act occurred once more before the river resumed its erratic course to the Gulf of Mexico. The languid river was now the turgid product of pesticide and saline-laced water returning to the river from the agricultural fields below Mexicali.

The Colorado had been drained many times along the 1,700-mile journey from its pristine headwaters in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming. (The technical beginning of a river system is the headwaters farthest from its end. For the Colorado River system, this is the Green River in western Wyoming.) After 15 years, I could see that it was still “A River No More,” the title of my 1981 book about the river and the West. I first came to the Colorado as the environmental writer and ski editor of the Los Angeles Times. It had amazed me that I could ski in Aspen, Colo., and then, at least theoretically, drink and bathe in that same snowmelt in Los Angeles. I was curious about the linkage. So in June of 1973, I set off on my first journey from the headwaters to the gulf and subsequently wrote a long story for the newspaper. Several years later, I dealt with river-related issues as assistant secretary of the California Resources Agency. I then returned to writing about the river as western editor of Audubon magazine and as an author.

I made frequent trips on the main stem of the river and its four main tributaries (the Green, upper Colorado, San Juan and Gila rivers) and throughout the 244,000-square-mile watershed. In my book, I had written, “Within a few more years, perhaps 20 or so, there was not going to be enough water to fulfill everybody’s desires. The river was running dry.” Last year, a high-ranking Interior Department official testified before a congressional committee that water-supply problems would occur in 10 to 20 years. Elizabeth Ann Rieke, then an assistant Interior Department secretary, added, “Even if you apply all the management tools we now have, which are conservation and reuse, you may not be able to satisfy the demand.”

As Guldenschuh’s Cessna 172 slowly circled the delta, an impractical thought occurred to me. Every politician, every bureaucrat, every water lawyer, every judge who ruled on such matters, every editorial writer who opined on them--in fact, the millions of people in the West who bathed, shaved, cooked, watered their lawns and irrigated their fields with Colorado River water--should be required to walk one mile across the burning sands of the delta to experience firsthand the true cost of living in an arid land and having to import water long distances. Such a wasteland was the heritage of desert civilizations such as the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest. The overuse of water was the undoing of these civilizations.

The delta had not always been a barren land. Seventy-five years ago, naturalist Aldo Leopold described it as a land of “milk and honey” inhabited by snowstorm-like flights of egrets, jaguars and “a welter of fish and fowl.” He used such phrases as “green lagoons,” “lovely groves” and “awesome jungles.” I had been on the ground in the delta and knew that little, if anything, remained of that paradise.

There is no doubt where most of the water goes. A little over 5 million acre-feet--about one-third of the river’s average annual flow--is diverted via the All-American Canal, just north of Yuma, and the Colorado River Aqueduct, near Lake Havasu City, to the inland agricultural and coastal regions of Southern California. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that covers an acre to the depth of one foot. A family of four uses about one acre-foot a year.) The water irrigates 900,000 acres of some of the most productive agricultural lands in the world and is the sole or supplemental source of water for more than half the state’s population.

The largest consumer of Colorado River water is California’s Imperial Irrigation District, using 3 million acre-feet last year. Two other desert farm areas in California--the Coachella and Palo Verde valleys--accounted for nearly 1 million acre-feet. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California furnished the coastal region from north of Malibu to Riverside to the Mexican border with 1.3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water.

The remainder of the south coast’s water supply comes (in order of its importance) from Northern California, ground water, the Owens Valley, local run-off and reclaimed water. In the Los Angeles Basin, Colorado River water is either supplied directly or mixed with other water supplies. One reason it is mixed is because it is quite hard: Colorado River water is used, reused, and reused again and again, thus acquiring a high mineral content before it reaches Southern California.

Besides being one of the most used rivers in the world, the Colorado has a number of other unique features. It traverses the most dramatic lands in the nation and is the most tightly controlled, politicized and litigated river in the country. People killed for water in the West. The Arizona National Guard was mobilized in 1934 to protect that state’s interest. It took 12 years for the Supreme Court to divide the waters between Arizona and California. And Mexico and the United States almost wound up in the World Court in a dispute over water quality in the early ‘70s.

We were nearing the border, and Guldenschuh radioed for landing instructions. As we approached Yuma International Airport, I thought it ironic that the control tower told us to use the vestiges of a river as our landing guide. The Colorado was like a mirage--here one moment, gone the next, and difficult to get a handle on. Before the dams evened out the flows, the wild river had swung from flood to drought stages. It had momentarily roared back to life in the summer of 1983 and punched its way through to the Gulf of California. That flood was followed by a drought. (See sidebar.)

It was against this background that I began my latest journey down the river: first through Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico in the lower region and then, after the snow melted, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah in the upper portion. I was searching for what was the same or different since my last extensive probes.

There were some general impressions: I was stunned by the vast amount of urban growth. The people who manage the Colorado River water still relied on “normal” or “above normal” levels of precipitation, although almost everyone who had anything to do with the distribution of water recognized that the figures embedded in law were based on a wet cycle early in the century; and, accordingly, too much water was apportioned. Drought was still considered an abnormality and did not enter into the skewed calculations.

There were some changes, such as a dim awareness that there is not enough water to fulfill everyone’s wishes. Conservation is being practiced, but on a scale that doesn’t hurt anyone--the gains being infinitesimal. Reluctantly, water users are considering the needs of wildlife. The first tentative steps are being taken toward a slight rearrangement of water supplies. But distrust and fear of change are delaying the process of meaningful change. No western state wants to disturb the relatively peaceful, albeit outdated, status quo that has taken so many years to establish. Nor do they relish a return to the chaos caused by the unpredictable rulings of distant federal agencies, the courts and Congress.


I began my journey at Glen Canyon Dam, the center point, or fulcrum, of the river. Fifteen miles below the northern Arizona dam, at Lees Ferry, was where the Colorado was officially divided into the upper and lower regions. Each was administered by a separate entity of the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the federal Department of the Interior. The types of boats that plied the river also divided at this point. Slower pontoon boats, rubber rafts, kayaks and dories floated the 278 miles southwest through Grand Canyon National Park to Lake Mead. Fast outboard motorboats headed toward the dam to cruise the excellent trout fishing grounds.

Rainbow trout are not native to these waters. They were planted when the dam was completed and 46-degree water was released from the bottom of Lake Powell, the reservoir formed by the dam. The trout took hold; native species, accustomed to warmer water, disappeared. Russell Sullivan, an owner of a guide service, said the number and quality of the trout runs had steadily increased since 1991. That was the year the Bureau of Reclamation moderated the releases of water used to generate electricity.

Nearby on a sandy beach, a rafting company was preparing for a 13-day trip down the river. Tony Anderson, a veteran river runner, said the tempered flows of water made it a less dangerous river and did not destroy the riparian habitat. “That is basically what we were concerned about,” he said.

Later that day, I hiked down a side canyon and watched the yellow rafts float through the first riffle. I had chosen not to take a river trip, having floated through the Grand Canyon twice before and found quiet water preferable to booming rapids. Besides, the paper trail seemed more promising. By coincidence, two important documents concerning the Grand Canyon had just been published by the Department of the Interior. One pertained to the releases from the dam, the other to crowding at Grand Canyon National Park.

I had witnessed the start of a nearly two-decade-old process whose result was to alter the flows for the first time for recreational and wildlife purposes. During the late ‘70s, I had attended a public hearing at which the bureau had proposed increasing the generating capacity of Glen Canyon Dam. Only a few people attended the hearing, and no objections were voiced. It took river runners, owners of rafting companies and canyon aficionados a couple of years to realize that the amount of water and its rate of change would contribute further to the artificiality of a river whose water level was determined by the air-conditioning load in Phoenix.

The concerns were that beaches would wash away, wildlife habitat would dwindle and native fish and archeological sites would disappear. After scores of studies that cost millions of dollars, resulted in thousands of public comments, and the application of some political pressure the bureau agreed in 1991 to interim releases that were more moderate.

Early last year, a draft environmental impact statement was released by the Interior Department. It generated 33,163 responses, the vast majority being preprinted cards supplied by utility companies whose customers feared higher electrical rates. This March, the bureau released the final statement, recommending a compromise that fell between the interim and previously unrestricted flows. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, or his successor, will eventually make the final decision.

Jim Ruch of the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation organization centering its activities around the Colorado River, said, “What was significant was that water was put aside for something other than power generation.”


It was a blustery spring day, and farther down the river and one mile above the river, the number of visitors was only half what it would be during the peak summer months. Cars, vans, tour buses and huge recreational vehicles circled about, vying for a parking place on the lip of the canyon. People competed for standing room at the overlooks. Their chief activity was photographing each other. It was impossible for them to deal with the immensity of that huge chasm. The only way the diorama could be reduced to an understandable scale--meaning that of a small screen--was through the viewfinder of a camera.

The park’s facilities were congested, worn out and beaten down by what the Park Service described as “the annual crush of 5 million visitors and their private cars.” One million passengers landed in 1993, the latest year for which figures are available, at a nearby modern jetport, the third-busiest in Arizona. From there, the visitors were hauled around the park for three or four hours in buses and then flown back to Las Vegas.

By 3 p.m., all the camping spaces were taken in the park, so I headed south through the gateway community of Tusayan with its tepees, McDonalds, Denny’s, Taco Bell, helicopter rides and giant screen images of the Grand Canyon (“World’s Largest Motion Picture System!”). I spent that night in the campground of a Flintstones theme park.

The Park Service came up with a plan this spring to deal with the overcrowding. Vehicles would be banned in a few places along the South Rim; parking and public transit would be encouraged. The plan hinted at limiting visitors during peak periods, then stepped back from such a radical approach. On the river, however, limits had been in place since the early 1970s.

To escape the congestion, I drove to the more remote North Rim and took the 60-mile dirt road out to Toroweap Overlook. Below lay Lava Falls, foaming and audible even from a distance. The falls, where the Colorado drops 37 feet in a constant explosion of running water against volcanic rock, are the most fearsome rapids on the river. People have drowned there. Three of six dories capsized at Lava on my last river trip. Lava Falls was one very good reason why I was not on the river. I had heard that the rapids had recently become even more treacherous.

Nature, as well as humans, had altered the river during my absence. From the overlook, I could see a landslide at the mouth of Prospect Canyon, just above Lava Falls. The landslide pinched the river and roiled the normally smooth water that drops into the huge standing waves and rocks.

A few weeks earlier, members of a Glen Canyon Environmental Studies research team were camped a quarter-mile above the rapids. Unbeknown to them, they were about to witness one of the greatest water, rock and earth slides in recent years. It had been raining hard and steadily since 6 the previous evening. Shortly after midnight, they heard a huge roar and the sound of falling rocks from the direction of Lava Falls. The river, backed up by the instant constriction, rose and threatened to inundate the campsite.

At daybreak, the researchers hiked to the creek in Prospect Canyon. Chocolate-colored water poured down the watercourse and tumbled over a newly formed waterfall. A fine brown mist rose in the canyon. The landslide extended 100 to 150 feet into the main channel. The standing waves in the rapids had greatly increased in size.

The familiar landmarks that guided river runners had disappeared. The boatmen thought the rapid was not runnable. They waited three days, then made it through without mishap. The researchers concluded, “There may be an increase in the number of boating accidents at Lava Falls.”

Lava Falls is the last major rapid on the river before Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. The dam, a structure of heroic proportions and architecture built during the Depression, is regarded as an American icon. More than 3 million vehicles a year cross the top of the dam on Highway 93.

The Bureau of Reclamation chose to promote its presence on the river by constructing a costly visitor center at the dam that was to open a few weeks after my visit. The poor bureau. What with dam safety problems, declining budgets, projects and personnel and the fiasco in building the visitor center, the agency--once known to its critics as the Bureau of Wrecklamation and regarded by its supporters as the savior of the West--was now but a shadow of its former self.

It took nine years to build the new visitor facilities, at three times the original cost estimate. Reclamation Commissioner Daniel P. Beard recently said the cost estimates were “grossly underestimated: In fact, they were mythical.” He added, “It is a sad chapter in the history of our agency.” (Beard resigned shortly thereafter for other reasons, stating that he had accomplished his goal of making the bureau “the preeminent water resource management agency in the world.”) Nevada, Arizona and Southern California users of power generated by Hoover Dam will have to pay for part of the $122-million cost of the five-story parking garage and the three-level, glass, concrete and copper-roofed visitor center that glorifies the bureau’s activities on the river.


Since my last visit, urban sprawl has flared across the Las Vegas basin, spilled over Railroad Pass, bypassed tidy Boulder City and tumbled down the slope toward Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. The growth across the whole lower Colorado region, from Page to Yuma and the regions beyond the immediate watershed, has been phenomenal. Las Vegas leads them all.

It is hard to picture Las Vegas as a river city, but it is only 10 miles from Lake Mead, and no other major metropolitan area in the watershed lies closer to the Colorado. The glitter capital of the world is reaching out to embrace the river. Southern Nevada desperately needs more water.

The facts are eloquent: Nevada, with the smallest population and service area, got the least amount of water when it was apportioned between the seven states in 1922. Then something occurred that had not been foreseen; the region grew and grew and grew. Southern Nevada’s population increased by 32% in the five years ending in 1993. Another 30% increase is expected by the end of the century. If additional supplies of water are not found, shortages may occur before 2010. Nevada may be the first state in the Colorado River Basin to run out of water.

To delay that fate, Southern Nevada water officials launched a number of desperate initiatives during the past five years. First, they attempted to go it alone: They sought all the underground water in the region, they made a feint toward a tributary of the Colorado River, and they screamed about being shortchanged on Colorado River water. The results were minimal, so they joined Arizona and California in a diplomatic approach that included conservation measures.

Water waste is most conspicuous in Las Vegas. The per capita consumption of water there is twice the national average and three times that of Los Angeles. A local water official recently commented: “On the most amazing street in America, you can start your day at one end floating on the Nile among the Egyptians, lunch in the splendor of ancient Rome and watch the sun set behind a fire-breathing volcano with a cascading waterfall.”

Most of the direct use of water in Las Vegas is residential, but the statistics are deceiving. Many of the casinos’ outdoor displays are treated waste water. These gaudy displays and such shows as Riviera’s “Splash II,” which features a “waterized theater,” certainly do not encourage conservation. Additionally, the construction boom of the new generation of mega-hotels feeds the residential explosion.

I spent an afternoon with a conservation representative from the local water district. Patrick Greene traveled from casino to casino attempting to attract interest in low-flow shower heads. It was a tough sell. Most of the hotels with cost-conscious operations already had them.

The maintenance problems in a casino like Caesars Palace are simply mind-boggling. The casinos are small cities with a huge daily turnover of population. Jake Jacob, assistant vice president in charge of facilities at Caesars, said, “We get all kinds of guests. Some re-engineer the room while they are here.” Anything movable or unscrewable is a target for theft, including shower heads. Jacob was particularly interested in a shower head that was difficult to vandalize and worked well with hard Colorado River water.

As we emerged from the opulent interior of Caesars Palace into the glare of a desert afternoon and a wind-whipped dust storm, I suddenly realized that much of the contemporary culture of the American Southwest is based on denying its desertness. I knew of no casino that realistically celebrated the local environment--the desert. In a subdivision being built to the south, Paseo Verde Parkway and Val Verde Road intersected in Green Valley Ranch. The concept of green, like sod lawns, was an imported fantasy.


Serious recreation takes place on the river below Hoover Dam. The boaters on Lake Havasu play hardest on major holiday weekends. That is when the Coast Guard and state and local law-enforcement agencies in Arizona and California marshal flotillas of speedboats, medevac helicopters and salvage vessels to deal with the boisterous crowds.

I joined a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department patrol on Easter weekend. About 20 deputies assembled in a newly constructed building on the Arizona side of the lake used by all the law-enforcement agencies. They wore black shorts, white polo shirts and sneakers with the usual bulky paraphernalia cinched to their waists. Most had Oakley sunglasses. The young men looked cool and seemed to know it.

While waiting for their briefing, they told war stories. There was the one about the boater who tried to shoot a helicopter out of the air with a flare gun. Another deputy brought the others up to speed: “I tell you it was crazy out there yesterday. We broke our boat in with this guy’s blood. He dove from a cliff and bounced three times on the rocks before he hit the water.”

Sgt. Felix D’Amico, coordinator of special projects, gave the briefing. He recounted last Easter’s successful operation: 142 drunken-driving arrests. That beat Sacramento County, the usual state leader in such statistics. D’Amico went over DUI procedures. He cautioned against getting caught in the mass of boats and people in Copper Canyon: “Don’t start something you can’t finish. If there is a full-scale riot, get out of there fast. I don’t have a contingency plan.”

Copper Canyon on the California side of the lake was the new hot spot on the river ever since the Easter week crowds of youths were kicked out of Palm Springs. The cost of admission to the desert cove was fairly high--a speedy, flashily painted, plastic boat stocked with a lot of beer and a sound system that could be heard over the roar of a powerful engine. MTV had recently taped a program in Copper Canyon; it was that kind of place.

I was with a roving patrol. We slowly circled just outside the mouth of the canyon. We cautiously edged closer. The cove formed a natural amphitheater. People stood on the cliffs while others sat along ledges on folding chairs. Boats of every description were mashed together in the orchestra seats. Nimble youths jumped from boat to boat. There were deep roars and bursts of cheers, much like at a football stadium. Robotic arms moved up and down like pistons, conveying beer to mouths.

On the other side of the lake, the promenade of boats under London Bridge was like the Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour. We barely edged forward. Boats were parked along both sides of the narrow passage. Beer cans were hoisted to toast our passage. The Dixie Belle, a mock stern-wheeler, made its way under the bridge that was once coated with London grime.


It was time for the river to go to work. The Colorado was diverted, via the Central Arizona Project canal, eastward at Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona and westward to nourish the cities of Southern California. In gentle arcs, kept that way by rock ribs that resisted any natural deviation, the river flowed south to Imperial Dam, where it was siphoned off for its greatest deployment.

When I was last in the Imperial Valley, the quality, not the quantity, of water was the main concern. The highly saline waters of the Colorado were slowing crop growth. Salinity had been held in check, and conservation was now the focus of attention. Farmers in the largest irrigation district in the nation were forced to accept this concept.

It came about this way: Return flows from the fields and water not used in the valley empties into the Salton Sea. The water level rose, and properties surrounding that desert sump were damaged. The Imperial Irrigation District was hit with a number of successful suits. In a separate action, the state ordered the district to stop wasting water. With additional water supplies not available from Northern California for coastal users and the great disparity between agricultural and urban allotments becoming an issue during the recent drought, Imperial Valley residents feared the “Owens Valley syndrome.” That was a reference to Los Angeles’ taking of water from the east slope of the Sierra Nevada earlier in the century.

The valley needed, at the very least, to give the appearance of not wasting water and, at the most, to gain something for what it appeared to save. At the same time, Los Angeles and the cities surrounding it that were represented by the Metropolitan Water District (Met) were in the market for water. Win-win deals, whereby no one was hurt, were struck. There was no cutback in water usage. A more efficient delivery system was financed by Met, which diverted the paper savings in water for coastal use.

I saw the results of this horse-trading during the morning I spent with a ditch-tender. Called zanjeros in the Imperial Valley, ditch-tenders are responsible for moving the water from the canals to the fields. They open and close and raise and lower gates, controlling the flow of water. The irrigation district employees are the basic link between the water provider and the farmer. They carry shovels, not six-shooters, and the importance of their role in the winning of the West has never been properly recognized.

Ditch-tender Leonard Schaffer, with whom I had previously spent time, was retired. He had passed his knowledge on to George Moses, who told me as I climbed into the district’s pickup: “The pressure is on for water conservation, big time.” With Schaffer, there had been a few spare minutes for a coffee break at a small country cafe. Since then, the canals had been lined with concrete to prevent leakage. “Water moves faster now,” Moses explained. There was no coffee break.

We passed two fields where the water was collected at one end and pumped back for a second pass. Powerful electrical pumps, financed by Met, drove the water in one field, while a tractor engine was the propellent in the other. A farmer who had placed his water order the previous day changed his mind that morning. Before, that water would have flowed to the Salton Sea. Now it was stored nearby in a small holding reservoir for use the next day. The savings in water was credited to Met.

Moses read his orders from a “Zanjero Run Sheet” printed on green and white computer paper. He drove along the Newside and Dandelion canals, getting out to open gates with an iron bar and measuring the openings with a yardstick. With his red shirt, blue jeans and dark glasses, Moses was a cowboy of the canals who herded the water toward its proper destination.


Below the Imperial Valley lies Mexico at the end of the river. Before my flight over the delta, I once again explored it on the ground as far south as the Gulf of California. I was particularly interested in the fate of the last small community on the river. Nearly 20 years ago, a friend and I had set out from Yurimuri in a two-person kayak to search for the end of the river. There were freshly dug canals filled with water and barren land waiting for residential development.

It was still waiting. The canals were filled with silt. A few cabins and trailers parked under ramadas stood next to the torpid river. A sign said, “Campo San Miguel. Riverfront lots available. See Capitan Miguel.”

I found the capitan , a thin old man with a stubble of beard and a military-style cap. I showed him the picture in my book of the canal filled with water and the crane behind it.

Mas agua then.” he said.


Next: The writer travels from the headwaters of the Colorado to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona.