Colorado River

Water in the Desert

The desert is no place to be without water - one of man's basic needs for survival. We think of deserts as areas of extreme heat and dryness. Deserts characteristically receive less than 10 inches of rainfall annually. In some deserts, the amount of evaporation is greater than the amount of rainfall. Typically, desert moisture occurs in brief intervals and is unpredictable from year to year.

Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Who would guess that the Southwest gets its water supply from the Colorado river that runs right though the middle of three major deserts on its way to the Sea of Cortez? The Colorado river and the use of its water has shaped the history of the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, which all depend on the Colorado River and its tributaries for water. Behind Hoover Dam, Lake Mead holds almost a two-year supply of water from the Colorado River.

It's May, and the summer heat is here in Escondido, CA. The winds have changed and are blowing off the desert from the east. As the temperature rises from the effects of the Santa Ana winds, I sit on my patio sipping ice water. The water in my glass is from the Colorado River. In fact, all the water we get in the summer is Colorado River water. As I drink my water, I think about the journey of the water from its source and how it has arrived here in my glass.

Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam

It starts in the winter with lots of snow in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and moves on in the spring as the melting snow drains away. The water starts as a trickle and soon becomes a major river that cuts its way to the Sea of Cortez. Below is a picture taken by from a space shuttle flight over the Southwest at an altitude of 154 miles. The Grand Canyon can be seen near the center of this southwest-looking, high-oblique photograph. This view of the southwestern United States shows the course of the Colorado River as it traverses from Lake Powell in southern Utah, through the Grand Canyon, westward to Lake Mead in eastern Nevada, and then southward to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.

View from Space

The dark forested areas on either side of the Grand Canyon are the Kaibab Plateau to the north, and the Coconino Plateau to the south. Snow-covered Humphreys Peak of the San Francisco Peaks is visible south of the Coconino Plateau. Just south of the mountains is the tree-covered Mogollon Rim. The bright orangish-red sands of the Painted Desert can be seen east of the Grand Canyon. The forested Wasatch Mountain Range of southern Utah is visible north of the Kaibab Plateau. Southwest of Lake Mead, the Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley of southern California can be seen. West of the Salton Sea, clouds cover the Pacific Ocean.

Water and the Desert

For millions of years the Colorado River has left its mark on the land. Since the river was formed, it has been hard at work cutting great chasms, including the Grand Canyon, as it carved its 1,400-mile course from Colorado's Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez. Early settlers along the Colorado tried to alter the river's impact on the land by diverting its waters for irrigation. But each year the Colorado, fed by melting snows in the spring and early summer, flooded low-lying lands along its route, destroying lives, crops, and property. In late summer and early fall, the river often dried to a trickle, too low to divert. Without water, crops and livestock withered and died.

The cycle of either too much or too little water limited the river's usefulness. To protect the low-lying valleys from flooding, and to assure a stable, year-round water supply, the river had to be tamed. A disastrous flood in California's Imperial Valley, which occurred when the river changed its course in 1905, provided additional incentive for its control and regulation.

The flood occurred when early spring flash floods bolstered a normally high spring runoff. These high flows washed away small earth dams which had been constructed in a temporary channel cut for the purpose of diverting water from the river to the Imperial Canal. This canal ran through Mexico on its way to the Imperial Valley. As the heavy flows deepened the channel, the river changed course and began flowing into the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea.The river flowed into the valley for 16 months before it was returned to its original course. In that time, it destroyed homes and crops; heavily damaged highways, railroads, and irrigation works; and increased the size of the Salton Sea from 22 to 500 square miles. The Salton Sea now measures 360 square miles and has 110 miles of shoreline.

The Colorado River covers a lot of ground on its way to the sea. There are many great areas to visit to get a view of the river and the landscape that it has created. Add human interaction to control the river through a series of dams, and you have some spectacular recreational areas and resources never before known in the desert.

To explore the river, you will want to start your trip at Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, both carved by rain, wind and river erosion. Canyonlands was cut by both the Colorado and Green rivers. Their confluence is the centerpiece of the park. The entrance to Canyonlands is near Arches' entrance, and the parks together make a nice two-day outing. There is no highway that follows the Colorado River. You can explore it in about 2 or 3 weeks with several side trips to some of the most interesting places in the USA.

You can also explore the Colorado River and its many points of interest on your computer by clicking on the table below. The table starts in Utah and works its way to Yuma, where what is left of the Colorado River flows into Mexico.

-- Jim Bremner


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