May 312015
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Colorado River at Yuma

History of man’s taming of the powerful Colorado River
to control flooding, obtain water and power, irrigate farmland
and create recreational spaces, with unintended consequences along the way

The Colorado River begins in the mountains of Colorado and snakes southwest for 1,450 miles towards the Gulf of California. Over a century ago, the river ran free from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico. The river delta covered over two million acres, with wetlands and waterways extending from the southern U.S. to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Today, the river  dries up before the U.S./Mexico border and no longer reaches the ocean. Plant, animal and marine life have disappeared. Seven western states and Mexico share water from this heavily managed river, but the river is shrinking due to drought conditions over the past 15 years and there is concern about the future of this water supply.

The history of the taming and harnessing of this powerful river and the story of current restoration and conversation efforts are fascinating.

Before dams were constructed up and down the Colorado River, its course was unpredictable from season to season. It ran fast and deep and stretched wide in places. At what would become Yuma, Arizona, granite outcroppings squeezed the river into a narrower channel. Yuma Crossing became known as the safest and easiest place to cross the river. A settlement developed at Yuma in the mid-1800s. With its close proximity to the river, the town was prone to frequent flooding.

The Yuma Project was initiated in 1904 to create a dam and irrigation canals. Laguna Dam, the first dam on the Colorado River, was completed in 1909. It was based on successful weir systems in India. In a weir system, water flows freely over the top instead of being released in measured amounts. Backed up water forms a pool and can be diverted into canal systems.

The dam ended the steamboat era. Steamships and barges operated in the lower Colorado in the late 1800s, killing off native cottonwoods and willows to fuel their boilers. At Yuma, a U.S. Army Quartermaster Deport stored goods brought by steamboat from Mexico for later shipment by stagecoach to posts in California. The Depot was in operation from the 1860s to the 1880s. It is now Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park. Information on the Colorado River story is one of the displays at the park.

Pilot House Wheel

Mojave Steamboat Pilot House Wheel
on display at Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park

Because of the location of the Laguna Dam, water to supply canal systems in the Yuma Valley needed to cross either the Gila River or the Colorado River. The Yuma Project chose to go under the Colorado River. The inverted Colorado River Siphon is a large u-shaped tunnel formed by three concrete shafts. Water flows through the system by gravity. Today the Yuma Valley is a thriving agricultural area, thanks in part to the canal system. The area produces 90% of the leafy green vegetables grown in the U.S. in winter months.

River diving outfit

Diving outfit on display at Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park
(During the building of the Siphon, divers went underground
and placed dynamite in submerged concrete when groundwater seepage caused a problem)

The success of the Yuma Project led to other dam projects. The Hoover Dam was built in 1936 to control floods and generate hydro-electric power. It also created the Lake Mead recreational area. The Parker Dam was built in 1938 to supply water and power to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson. It created Lake Havasu, which is 45 miles in length and the deepest dam in the world.

Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu

The Imperial Dam, also built in 1938, delivers irrigation and drinking water to Yuma, Imperial, Coachella and Gila Valleys. It irrigates 600,000 acres of rich farmland. The Morelos Dam was built in 1950. It is Mexico’s only dam on the river and provides irrigation and drinking water to the Mexicali Valley. Building of the Davis Dam began in 1942, was temporarily suspended due to World War II, and completed in 1951. The dam regulates water flow to Mexico through integration with the Hoover Dam and supplies power for California, Nevada and Arizona.

The last dam, built in 1968 amid growing environmental concerns, was the Glen Canyon Dam. It regulates the amount of water to the lower Colorado Basin and generates over 3.4 billion kilowatt-hours of energy annually. It created Lake Powell and the popular Glen Canyon Recreational Area.

The dams provide water and power to millions of people, irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and control flooding, but there have also been unintended consequences. Ecosystems have been altered with negative impact to native species. Wetlands have disappeared.

Colorado River at Yuma

Colorado River at Yuma
(The once raging river is tame and shallow)

Yuma Canal

Part of the current Yuma Canal

See Part 2 of the Colorado River Story for information about current conservation and restoration projects.

(Information sources: displays at Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, Visit Yuma tourism site, Save the Colorado, Sonoran Institute)

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  42 Responses to “Colorado River Story – Part 1”

  1. Very interesting! I had no idea the Colorado River was that long, nor that it covered so many acres! And it is fascinating to read that so many projects were started and still exist because of the Colorado River. Talk about man taming the wild!

    • Thanks Jacquie. I find it fascinating to think the this river was once such a raging torrent through a desert area.

  2. Interesting. Have to admit I didn’t know about the Yuma project and how it led to other dams being built. Good pictures.

    • Catarina, I didn’t know about the Yuma project until I visited the Yuma Quartermaster Depot Park. It took a lot of determination to build that Siphon, I think.

  3. Thank you for this excellent post about the Colorado River. It is a very critical source of water here in Arizona where I live. It is good to know about the effects that occur after changing nature with a dam. Ending the steamboat era, for example.

    • Beth, as with most things, the dams had good and not-so-good consequences. Having spent 3 winters now in Arizona, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the Colorado River.

  4. Donna, I love the way you combine narrative with photos. It makes the story come alive. In the past we have done a lot of damage to our waterways – in the US but also in Canada. I’ll be looking forward to next week’s post when you cover the conservation and restoration projects going on.

    • Thanks Lenie. It’s the restoration efforts that first caught my attention and made the history more interesting to me.

  5. Interesting story Donna. You don’t often find a history of a river. Look forward to part 2.

    • Ken, although I haven’t through about it a lot until becoming captivated with the Colorado River story, I suspect a lot of rivers have interesting histories. The stories and that of humans are often closely interwoven.

  6. What a beautiful write up.

    Living in the UK, I am blown away by how huge America is. There are many states I would like to visit – unsure where I would even start.

    Thank you for sharing this. I feel as though I have had a small taste of Colorado.

  7. Interesting story! I didn’t know that about the Colorado River. I know that the drought in the west has been terrible. My mother lived in California and it was starting to get really bad before she passed 7 years ago. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  8. We visited the Colorado River starting at the headwaters which are located in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Being from California I knew that the river flows southwestward toward the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Pretty amazing the size of this river

    • Hi Arleen. It would be interesting to see the headwaters in Colorado and compare that to the river at its southern point.

  9. I’ve traveled through Colorado many times and remember several camping trips with my aunt and uncle as a kid. Love this beautiful state and I enjoyed reading your post on the Yuma project and its history. Gorgeous opening photo! Anita

  10. It’s not just the Colorado River in danger, it’s our global water supply. Interesting there was just a segment on ground water being pumped into “overdraft” because of our need for water.

    You’ve said it all stating, “The dams provide water and power to millions of people, irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and control flooding, …” Populations grow but the truth is, our water supply is limited by nature. People are however getting creative with us producing water.

    Terrific pictures Donna.

  11. Can’t wait for Part 2~ Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Vicki. It was some of the projects I will highlight in Part 2 that aroused my interest in the history of the Colorado River.

  12. The story of the Colorado River is a fascinating one. I read a lot about it when I was researching the Salton Sea, another unintended consequence of damming the river. I am interested to read of the conservation efforts and what is likely to be put into action.

    • Tim, the Colorado River has so many stories. I’m heartened to read about conservation efforts but at the same time wonder what unintended consequences might result from man’s latest effort to control the river.

  13. I love anything and everything to do with rivers. Each one has such character and power to shape its respective landscape. Yet, I’m reminded of the passages from Desert Solitaire where Edward Abbey writes about all that has been lost in the desert landscape when Lake Powell was formed. We don’t often think about that aspect as much as we should. Also, there’s a growing urge to drain Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite.

  14. You’ve shared things I never knew about the Colorado River Donna. That area has its own kinds of beauty don’t you think? I am very interested to hear more about the conservation efforts, something near and dear to my heart. 🙂

  15. This is really interesting, since it’s set almost in my backyard! I was just out camping this weekend on one of the Colorado’s tributaries, and I had no idea of the history involved. Looking forward to the next part!

  16. They aren’t really unintended consequences, are they? They knew with each water diversion that there’d be less water flowing through. They just felt it was worth that tradeoff. And most of the people who rely on the water gained would agree! Looking forward to part 2!

    • Rachel, the consequences could have been predicted even the full scope may not have been imagined. And I think you’re right about people feeling it was worth the trade-off.

  17. I read that the Colorado River is the most endangered river of 2015. There are three major projects are slated to begin this year. One of the projects is the re-opening of inactive uranium mine which I’m sure will pollute the waters and beautiful landscape.

    • Pamela, the nonprofit organization American Rivers named the Colorado River the most endangered river in the United States in 2015. I did not know about the planned re-opening of the uranium mine.

  18. Wo, Donna, what an exhaustive post about the Colorado River and the history of dams. So interesting. I’ve never seen the Colorado River in any shape or form. I didn’t know that 90% of our leafy green vegetables in winter come from the Yuma Valley. Of course, when I go to the grocery store I know they just didn’t magically appear on the shelves. So much involved in getting them to market.

    • Jeanette, there seems to be so much involved in growing the vegetables in this area. I found the story of the dams and canals fascinating.

  19. I liked to read westerns as a kid. The wild Colorado River, seemed to be a part of each one. It being untamed and wild, was comparable to the west itself. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • William, I can certainly associate the wild Colorado river with the old west. It’s not very wild at its southern points anymore.

  20. The Colorado River has some interesting history to it.

  21. I always wonder if they–the builders–had the slightest inkling of what environmental issues could come from the result of these dams. I understand the need for them, but at what cost? I want to go to the Yuma museum!

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