Romancing Another River: The Sib-Lea and the Missouri

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George Sibley

That’s me in the picture, looking at the Missouri River, which Maryo and I encountered on a meandering journey home to Colorado from Wisconsin. Our meanders took us down through Missouri in search of the story behind a small village named ‘Sibley’ on that river. What we found was another George Sibley, the gentleman in the inset image: an early 19th century George Sibley who – working with the Missouri River and what it ran through – played a significant role in opening up the trans-Mississippi West. I’ve since looked into the life and times of that George Sibley. I’ve learned, among other things, that we are not directly related, but we branch off from a common ancestor: John Sibley, who came to America with an advance party of Puritans in 1629, to ‘make straight in the wilderness the way’ for the 11 ships and 1,000 Puritans John Winthrop led to ‘New England’ in 1630. John Sibley had four sons … Read More

Romancing Another River

George2022 Articles, Sibley's Rivers9 Comments

Wisconsin River

This post comes from Wisconsin. I’m taking a break from the Colorado River this week, and writing instead from the banks of the Wisconsin River. We’re in Wisconsin every October because it’s the home state of my partner Maryo. She’s happy enough where we are, in Gunnison near the Colorado River headwaters, but a big piece of her heart will always be in Wisconsin; a month every year in Wisconsin is like a vaccination against terminal homesickness. After sixteen years of this, however, I have come to appreciate and value the month in Wisconsin almost as much as Maryo does. Like Colorado, Wisconsin is a beautiful state, but it is a different beauty. Colorado’s attraction, for me anyway, has always lain in its vastness, its suprahuman scale; it is empty in the way of a promised land, grandly desolate in a way that both challenges and affirms the proud and lonely part of the soul; it makes me think there … Read More

Romancing the River: The Law of the River

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Hoover Dam Construction | LOTR

“Now we have to come to terms with the fact that there are limits. That’s not the American way to recognize limits.” – Jack Schmidt, Director Center for Colorado River Studies University of Utah For the past several posts, we’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact, commemorating its centennial this year. Nearly everything I have read about the Colorado River Compact in this centennial year – and it’s getting to be voluminous – speaks of it as the ‘foundation’ of ‘The Law of the River,’ an accumulation of legal and political documents accompanying the development of the Colorado River since the 1922 Compact.  I have a problem with calling the Compact the ‘foundation’ of the Law of the River – as though before the Compact was adopted, the River was lawless. That is not true. The real foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriations doctrine that all seven states (or territories) had embraced in the 19th century … Read More

Romancing the River: The Colorado River Compact at 100

George2022 Articles, Sibley's Rivers6 Comments

Glen Canyon Dam

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, That was built in such a logical way It ran a hundred years to a day … – Oliver Wendell Holmes We’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact here – which, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘wonderful one-hoss shay’ has now lived almost ‘one hundred years to the day’ – the commissioners signed off on it November 24, 1922.  The century mark is a good place to pause and pull back for a larger perspective on something like a multi-state agreement and see what it has and hasn’t actually accomplished – but without losing sight of the romantic vision of conquest that drove the Compact’s formation, back in the early decades of the Anthropocene Epoch when reorganizing the prehuman world was still fun. In the last post here, we looked at the ‘major purposes’ cited in the first article of the Compact: the first listed purpose, ‘to provide for the equitable division and … Read More

Romancing the River: 
Onward and – well, onward with the Colorado River Compact

George2022 Articles, Sibley's Rivers5 Comments

Hoover Dam... Romancing the River: 
Onward and – well, onward with the Colorado River Compact

If any drink [of the Hassayampa], they can no more see fact as naked fact, but all radiant with the color of romance. – Mary Austin Before getting into the Colorado River again, I want to put out a plea: Please recognize the importance of the coming ‘midterm elections.’ Especially if you live in one of 15 percent of our congressional districts that has not been gerrymandered to a foregone outcome. This is a ‘tipping point’ election, not between two political parties trying to work things out, but between two political concepts with no middle room for compromise: if both houses of Congress tip toward the Republicans this election, rather than remaining barely tipped toward the Democrats, then we are going to be taking a big bumbling step toward authoritarian governance, and away from our evolving American experiment in government by, for and of the people. I think I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but please do what you … Read More

Romancing the River: Colorado River Compact, Part 2 – Divide to Conquer

George2022 Articles, Sibley's Rivers15 Comments

“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, That was built in such a logical way It ran a hundred years to a day … – Oliver Wendell Holmes The last episode here ended with representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states gathering in Washington, DC, as a commission charged, in the words of Herbert Hoover, U.S. Commerce Secretary and Chair of the Commission, ‘to consider and if possible to agree upon a compact between the seven states … providing for an equitable division of the water supply of the Colorado River and its tributaries amongst the seven states.’ He went on to note that ‘this Conference is unique in its attempt to determine states’ rights over so large an area by amiable agreement.’ That was in January 1922; in 2022 we commemorate the centennial of a compact created by the Commission and ratified by six of the seven states and the U.S. Congress, enabling the controlling and harnessing … Read More

Romancing the River: Colorado River Compact – Part 1

George2022 Articles, Sibley's Rivers6 Comments

Roosevelt & Muir in Yosemite

You have probably heard that this is the centennial year for something called the Colorado River Compact – possibly spoken of or written about in the reverential tones usually reserved for Biblical material. The foundation, the cornerstone, et cetera, for something called, with equivalent solemnity, ‘The Law of the River.’ We will spend some time here on the Colorado River Compact because it is an important document – but not necessarily a document that deserved to exist unaltered and unamended in a kind of hallowed state for a century. Something like our U.S. Constitution in that regard – which has been amended, although not in all the places where it most needed it. But the authors of both documents would be horrified to see their work regarded as sacred texts. This first post focusing on the Compact will explore why a river compact was even necessary in the development of the Colorado River.  It may come as a surprise to … Read More

Romancing the River 6: Law and Some Order

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Romancing the River 6: Law and Some Order

Last episode here, we saw the engineering contingent in the Reclamation Service ‘breaking loose’ from the science-driven US Geological Survey, becoming the Bureau of Reclamation in 1907; Reclamation’s engineers were no longer constrained to the smaller local projects envisioned in the 1902 Reclamation Act, but were free to take on larger, regional projects like the Theodore Roosevelt Dam or the Gunnison Tunnel described in the last post. But before the Bureau of Reclamation could really launch into controlling and developing the Colorado River mainstem, there was another, less visible ‘political infrastructure’ that had to be constructed, around the dynamic water law that had evolved in the seven states whose destiny depended on the Colorado River. A basin-wide interstate issue about water rights had to be worked out. Time now to take a look at the water law foundational to the development of the arid West. Western water law begins with a simple premise: first come, first served. This is the … Read More

Romancing the River 5: Unleashing The Engineers

George2022 Articles, Sibley's Rivers2 Comments

Romancing the River 5: Unleashing The Engineers

By 1900, the Americans were ready to take on the Colorado River, economically, politically, psychologically – and perhaps most important, technologically.  In 1904 the United States went to work down in the tropics, far from home, on the Panama Canal, undertaken to shorten by weeks the boat trip from the Pacific ports to the Atlantic ports. This was a project comparable to the building of the Egyptian pyramids and the European cathedrals, all done with human and horse power. If you don’t have a bulldozer or power shovel and a truck the size of a house to move dirt around, then you give a hundred men shovels and another hundred wheelbarrows.  Where do you get the two hundred men? All previous civilizations depended on slaves acquired from surplus populations or conquered peoples for the heavy lifting. Sometimes it was paternalistic slavery like we practiced in the quasi-agrarian South, where the slaves were ‘owned’ and to one degree or another fed … Read More

Romancing the River 4: Meanwhile Back in the Anthropocene….

George2022 Articles, Sibley's Rivers6 Comments

Time to hit the pause button on unfolding the history of what Frederick Dellenbaugh called ‘The Romance of the Colorado River.’ I got a reminder from a reader of these posts, who appreciates the history but is more concerned with ‘what our future will look like.’ A good reminder – I did say, at the beginning here, that exploring ‘how to live in the Anthropocene’ is the basic objective of these posts. The coversheet above, from a popular song at the turn of the 20th century is probably not evocative of the way most of us feel here at the ‘Dawn of the Anthropocene.’  It might be important, however, to point out a distinction that might also be a difference; we are probably not at the Dawn of the Anthropocene today. The climatologists, geologists and other scientists who are in general agreement that a single species of life on earth has been, however naively, imposing planet-scale changes on the Earth, … Read More