Skip to main content



Seven States Look at the Legacy of the Colorado

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

Of the four basic elements once believed to make up the universe -- earth, air, fire, and water -- water may be the onemost often taken for granted, says oral historian and folklorist Jack Loeffler. That is, he says, unless you live on the West Coast, particularly in communities along the 1,700- mile river and tributaries known as the Colorado River Watershed.

“It’s a different culture out here,” says Loeffler, whose home is Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of the seven states the river travels along. “Water is so integral to our existence and our worries. If you look back in history, you see instances where battles were fought over a pond or maybe a spring for cattle to water. Then and now, it determines territoriality in the West.”

“Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West,” a joint project of the state humanities councils of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, will explore the historical connections and current interdependence of watershed communities that depend on the river.

More than one hundred programs will focus on the diversity of communities, their histories and economies, and the values and meanings associated with the river. “Moving Waters” will also include a radio documentary produced by Loeffler, and each project site will host a traveling exhibition for one month, along with three months of lectures and reading discussions.

River and the law; and the art and lore inspired by the dynamic connections between people and the river.

River Land looks at what the river has meant for river-dependent communities. The twenty-two sites that will host the project “reflect the river realities as a source for transportation, exploration, agriculture, conflict, change, continuity, recreation, natural resource extraction, and binational tensions,” says Nancy Dallett, project coordinator.

For example, the Aztec Ruins and Salmon Ruins near Farmington, New Mexico, and the Mogolon/Mimbres culture of the Gila Cliff dwellings near Silver City, New Mexico, are sites with prehistoric and cultural ties to the Colorado River. By hosting “Moving Waters,” both will have an opportunity to trace those ties.

Countless rivers and streams in the water-poor West have suffered damage from dam projects in the first half of the twentieth century. Fisheries were devastated, and several species of salmon and other commercially important fish were put on the endangered list. Key battles over dams were waged at two sites in Arizona -- Glenn Canyon and Parker Dam -- where dam construction prompted the Arizona governor to call on the National Guard to defend the Colorado River against California consumption.

Other sites were selected to host “Moving Waters” because they shed light on contemporary issues. The recent population explosion in Las Vegas, for example, means that the hundreds of thousands of new residents in the state are depleting Nevada’s relatively small supply of Colorado River water. “Moving Waters” will also visit the ten tribes that occupy Indian reservations with claims on or vested rights to the Colorado River.

“Another major reality one has to address today is that the river no longer flows to the sea,” Dallett says. “Large engineering constructions and faucet-like mechanisms control the river’s flow to the point that, in Mexico, you can step across the river in one stride. So the project will also look at how human control and use affect the river and the lives of people who depend on it.”

River Law examines how the river has been perceived by most Westerners as a resource to sustain transportation, irrigation, and large cities such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. “The law theme embodies how notions of owner-ship, use, and access are understood and played out in the West,” Shilling says.

Major John Wesley Powell, the explorer of the Grand Canyon, surveyed the Colorado River for the U.S. government in the late nineteenth century. In 1879 Powell submitted a report to Congress proposing legislation for the organization of communal water-basin districts. According to Powell, this was the only way that such a dry region could be made agriculturally productive. Powell’s report went unheeded at the time, but it has since been recognized as one of the most important books written about Western land.

“While he documented the realities over one hundred years ago, it has taken that long for most Americans to recognize the validity of his studies,” Shilling says. “Hence, the Colorado River is not only a metaphor, but a real-life example of the tough choices states and regions must make with respect to their futures. River Law deals with issues such as federal regulation, water rights, and distinct notions of water and property ownerships in the West.”

In River Lore, the project will take a look at how early inhabitants, explorers, poets, writers, painters, and tourists have depicted their river experiences. Writers from the Rocky Mountains will be highlighted, including Mary Hunter Austin, whose The Land of Little Rain records the landscape and wildlife of the deserts of Arizona and Southern California; Colorado naturalist Ann Haymond Zwinger, author of Shaped by Wind and Water: Reflections of a Naturalist, contemplates the rivers, deserts, and mountains of the West; and John A. McPhee, author of Conversations with the Archdruid, tells the story of outdoorsman and environmentalist David Brower.

Literature and art from Native Americans and Hispanics is another focus of River Lore. This section will include Mohave and Paiute creation stories and performances from singers Chuy Martinez and Katie Lee. Travel writing will be spotlighted, including Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante’s Journal, recounting his attempt to find a crossing of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon, and Linda Hogan’s Plant Journey, describing her impressions of floating the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.

River Lore provides an opportunity to compare the ways people have interpreted the significance of the Colorado River, Shilling says. He hopes the project will “juxtapose the language used to describe the river, explore the interconnectedness of creation myths and geologic time, highlight the collective consciousness of the river, and map its mythic meanings.”

Each of the six segments of the project’s radio documentary will delve into these three themes. Loeffler spent several months traveling to communities along the watershed talking with “scholars, lawyers, Native American people, people who just simply know about the river or have stories that almost become folklore.”

Loeffler spoke with Gary Paul Nabhan, director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, who joined a group of Native Americans and botanist-ecologists staging a 230-mile walk in the Arizona-Sonora Desert last year. Eating only native foods and taking wild medicinal plants used by their ancestors, the group aimed to show that combining traditional and scientific knowledge of desert foods and medicines may directly benefit contemporary communities of Native Americans.

Loeffler found Katie Lee’s story particularly memorable. When the eighty-one- year-old Lee took her first rafting trip down the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon in 1954, she was believed to be the 175th person in two hundred years to run it. Today, during rafting season, more than 175 people a day run the remaining sections of the river. Lee, an actress, folk singer, and author, made sixteen trips down the river, exploring the canyon and venturing into little-known side canyons. In her day, she says, “there were hundreds of untouched potholes, pools, and sluices in the sandstone bottoms, on the cap, in crevasses, everywhere -- and many untouchable ones out of reach, glistening deep and inviting.”

In 1963, Glen Canyon, a 170-mile ravine spanning the border between southern Utah and northern Arizona along the Colorado River, was flooded and the Glen Canyon dam was built to generate hydroelectric power. The flooded gorge became Lake Powell, now a recreation area. Lee and other activists have argued for years that the fluctuating water released by the Glen Canyon Dam is destroying canyons and causing the erosion of beaches, the leaching of nutrients from the soil, and the death of trout in the river.

According to hydrologist Luna B. Leopold, whom Loeffler interviewed, “We in the United States have acquiesced to the destruction and degradation of our rivers, in part because we have insufficient knowledge of the characteristics of rivers and the effects of our actions that alter their form and process.”

In 1905, the flood-swollen Colorado River crashed through a poorly made dike, sending billions of gallons of water surging into Southern California’s Imperial Valley. The flow continued unchecked for eighteen months, creating the 360-square mile Salton Sea. “The sea has no outlet, and its main sources of new water are agricultural drainage ditches polluted with farm chemicals and silt. It’s already 25 percent more salty than seawater and it’s becoming more saline by the day because of the lack of incoming fresh water,” says Loeffler. “And so today the Salton Sea is plagued by recurring die-offs of birds and fish, the latter of which wash up on the beaches by the millions every summer.”

The region’s troubles, Loeffler says, have led to intense debates about how, or whether, to save the Salton Sea. “I got a sense of the very complex history of this bioregion,” he says.

The future of the Salton Sea is one of the controversial issues “Moving Waters” engages. The radio series will be broadcast through National Public Radio to stations throughout the region. Programming begins in Arizona in December 2001, and continues through July 2002, traveling to twenty-two locations.

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Colorado River project has received $335,473 in funds from NEH.