A River No More: The Colorado River and the West

As I worked on environmental stories for the Los Angeles Times throughout the West during the early 1970s, they seemed to have one common denominator--the dependence of most of the West on the Colorado River for water, and thus life, at the very expense of the river's and the region's viability. So I traveled the river from its ultimate source in the Wind River Range of Wyoming to the Gulf of California in Mexico and then expanded the newspaper story into a book that dealt with the West as an interdependent watershed. More than twenty years after publication, the book remains the classic account of the Colorado River and the West.

Five key extracts follow:

"It was my aim to sketch the background, give a sense of place and people, define the issues, set forth the problems, and offer a few thoughts about the continued availability of Colorado River water and the viability of the West--all the time emphasizing the politics of natural resources. To me the river, in its present state, is primarily a product of the political process, whether conducted in Salt Lake City or Washington, D.C., rather than a natural phenomenon."

"The Colorado is the most used, the most dramatic, and the most highly litigated and politicized river in this country, if not the world."

"The river's flows and the land surrounding it in the Colorado River Basin--the heartland of the West--are fused together in a common destiny, as are those areas outside the watershed to which Colorado River water is diverted--southern California, Salt Lake valley, Colorado's Front Range, and the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. The quantity and the quality of the river's flows are a mirror image of what is upon the land--indeed, are the prime reason for there being something built upon or scratched out of the soil in the first place. How easily this is forgotten in the urban areas of this oasis civilization."

"Very simply, in terms of the largest amounts of water consumed and land used, it is a vast feedlot for livestock. The West is cows--beef, red meat--and the grasses and feeds growing wild or cultivated for these domestic bovine animals. It is not glorious national parks and coal strip mines, although they are there too; it is predominately cattle, and to some extent sheep, and the feed needed to fatten them for the dinner table and fast-food chains . . . . Probably never in history has so much money been spent, so many waterworks constructed, so many political battles fought, and so many lawsuits filed to succor a rather sluggish four-legged beast."

"Only the satellite photographs clearly demonstrate the reality of a river no longer attaining its historical outlet to the sea, a river so greatly diminished along its 1,700-mile journey from the furthest point on the Continental Divide that before reaching its proper ending the limp water simply evaporates from shallow ponds into the azure skies of the hottest region on the continent."

Like your first love, you never forget your first real book, the book on the California coast having been a 20,000-word warm up for this more demanding effort. Every time I entered the Colorado River Watershed to begin my research, my sensory antenna bristled with increased receptivity. The first draft was the book, something I cannot say for a few of my subsequent efforts.

Backstories of Earlier Works

Nonfiction
The definitive life of the West's outstanding writer, teacher of writers, and conservationist.
The use and abuse of the West's lifeblood, water.
Radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site caused innocent people to die.
How landscape has determined the history and destiny of California
Giant waves, five hundred feet higher than the Empire State Building, sweep a remote Alaska Bay.

Quick Links