Romancing the River: What Am I Talking About?

Romancing the River – I am aware, as you are probably aware, that when I title these posts ‘Romancing the River,’ I am talking about the life work of the kinds of people who do not usually think of themselves as ‘romantics,’ or of their water-related work as ‘romancing the river.’

Engineers, lawyers, politicians, managers, career bureaucrats, scientists – they all see themselves as rational beings just doing what must be done to rationalize a random force of nature, to put the river to beneficial use feeding, watering, powering and even entertaining us. That’s ‘romancing the river’? It’s almost an insult to call these serious public servants romantics, a term which resonates with most people today as not really very serious, just ‘love stories’ – so unserious it’s hardly worth them answering me when I call them romantics (which they don’t); easier for them to just dismiss me as some kind of nut (which they might).

So let me try again to explain myself – and why I believe it is neither criticism nor praise to suggest that the army of engineers, lawyers, politicians, career bureaucrats, scientists who have remade the Colorado River have been ‘romancing the river.’ It is a perspective to get up on the table and think about, as we find ourselves at a kind of still point: trying to figure out how to go forward from a century of river development that has ended uncomfortably close to a systemic collapse. It is hard to see 2022-23 as anything other than that, and we’ve only been temporarily reprieved with a wet winter and Biden’s infrastructure bucks giving us time to figure out how to do better for the future.

My thinking on this started with the book, mentioned here in posts more than a year ago, by Frederick Dellenbaugh, who came right out and said it in his title: The Romance of the Colorado River. Dellenbaugh, remember, first encountered the Colorado River as seventeen-year-old, in a boat with Major John Wesley Powell, on the scientist’s second trip down the canyons of the river in 1871-2.

Major Powell was better prepared and more experienced on that second trip, and actually able to accomplish some scientific work rather than just trying to survive. But for young Dellenbaugh, it was a big eye-opening experience – life-shaping, really: he spent the rest of his life exploring other unknown parts of the still-wild West, and collecting the stories of other adventurers.

He published The Romance of the Colorado River in 1902, thirty years after his formative trip with Powell – and the year the federal Reclamation Service was created as a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey, within 20 years the organization orchestrating the river’s development.

Dellenbaugh pulled no punches in describing his sense of the river and the challenge it represented. After noting in his introduction that ‘in every country, the great rivers have presented attractive pathways for interior exploration—gateways for settlement,’ serving as ‘friends and allies’ – he launches into his impression of the Colorado River:

‘By contrast, it is all the more remarkable to meet with one great river which is none of these helpful things, but which, on the contrary, is a veritable dragon, loud in its dangerous lair, defiant, fierce, opposing utility everywhere, refusing absolutely to be bridled by Commerce, perpetuating a wilderness, prohibiting mankind’s encroachments, and in its immediate tide presenting a formidable host of snarling waters whose angry roar, reverberating wildly league after league between giant rock-walls carved through the bowels of the earth, heralds the impossibility of human conquest and smothers hope.’

There’s Dellenbaugh’s ‘romance of the river’ – an adventure story of rising to meet a challenge, a call to action to overcome obstacles. A veritable dragon refusing to be bridled? Impossible? Prohibiting encroachment? Smothering hope? We would see about that!

And while it’s not a conventional love story, passion is involved, the kind that can turn on a dime between love and hate. We loved the presence of water in a dry land – but the water was fickle at best, destructive at worst. Every farmer trying to irrigate from its two-month flood that turned into a trickle when they most needed it knew that love-hate relationship; it became the century-long (thus far) story of a strong and ornery people testing some new-found technological strength through picking a fight with a strong and ornery protagonist: we would teach the river to stand in and push rather than cutting and running.

Dellenbaugh was not the only one turning it into a romantic adventure. When the Colorado River Compact had been hammered out in 1922, the Commission Chair and Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover announced that ‘the foundation has been laid for a great American conquest.’  In a 1946 report cataloging all the possible developments for the Colorado river’s upper tributaries, the Bureau of Reclamation carried forward Dellenbaugh’s assessment in its subtitle: ‘A Natural Menace Becomes a National Resource.’ These were the official public perceptions guiding our relationship with the Colorado River.

For three-quarters of the century that followed publication of Dellenbaugh’s Romance, America embraced that romantic challenge, answering the call to conquest, taking on those obstacles, not just individually but as a national project, a big last step in the ‘Winning of the West.’ And fueled by the power unleashed by buried carbon fuels, we were ready for the fight; it was the Early Anthropocene, and it was our planet to reform.

Remarkable things were done to the river as a result. The ‘veritable dragon’ has been broken and bridled for commerce and ‘utility everywhere.’ Its breaking and taming for commerce and utility is so massive that it practically requires the satellite view to take it in – the vast new ‘desert delta’ where the waters of the former desert river are spread from Phoenix and Tucson on the east, around through large squared-off green agricultural developments spotted with towns and cities, through the Imperial and Coachella valleys to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west…. And that’s just downriver; upriver are the tunnels through the mountains, taking water from the headwaters into the Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande Basins, and into the Great Basin itself – how long will it be before Anthropocene math calculates that there might be enough water left in the Green River to move some through the Central Utah Project workings to help recharge the Not-So-Great Salt Lake?

For me, the ‘utility’ that cements the idea that this has been a big romantic adventure is the way we have kept significant reaches of river ‘wild’ enough for industries replicating Dellenbaugh’s formative adventure. Slipping onto the tongue and into the thrashing maw of Lava Falls, it is still easy to imagine a ‘veritable dragon,’ and millions of people from all over the planet come out of the Grand Canyon having relived Dellenbaugh’s romantic adventure.

But at the same time…. We also have to face some things that are less to be celebrated. Which brings me to Mary Austin again, another writer of the southwestern deserts mentioned here before, and her skeptical observation on Arizona’s ‘fabled Hassayampa,’ an intermittent tributary of the Gila River west of Phoenix, ‘of whose waters, if any drink, they can no more see fact as naked fact, but all radiant with the color of romance.’ Phoenicians have been drinking from the Hassayampa for a century now, wrapped up in the romance of the happy golden years in green and sunny places – and the underlying standard American romance of great wealth to be harvested fulfilling such romantic dreams.

But the ‘naked facts’ don’t go away just because we don’t want to see them, and there’s a kind of cosmic irony in the fact that, right where the Hassayampa flows into the Gila (when it’s actually flowing), two big developments, Buckeye and Teravalis, have been shut down at least temporarily on further development because they can’t present evidence of a hundred-year water supply. (See this post last spring.)

The mayor of Buckeye, Eric Orsborn, who also owns a construction business, is not discouraged by this. ‘My view is that we’re still full steam ahead,’ he said in an article in The Guardian. ‘We don’t have to have all that water solved today…. What we need to figure out is what’s that next crazy idea out there’ for bringing in a new water supply. An idea under consideration currently is a desalinization plant down in Mexico on the Gulf of California, and a pipeline to bring the desalted water a couple hundred miles uphill to central Arizona. Crazy, and very expensive – but we’ve been saying in Colorado for decades now, as though it were a mother truth, ‘Water flows uphill toward money.’

But other naked facts have also been dimming the radiance of the Anthropocene conquest of the Colorado River. Water users have been coping for half a century with water quality issues stemming from using water over and over to irrigate alkaline soils. We also didn’t really know – and some states continue to refuse to acknowledge – how much water would be lost to evaporation from big reservoirs, hundreds of miles of open and unlined canals, and flood or furrow irrigation on subtropical desert lands. About a sixth of the river is vaporized annually.

But the biggest, most unforeseen collateral fact diminishing our conquest of the river is the turbulence we’ve wrought in the climate – increasingly an unignorable ‘naked fact.’ All the heavy technology and concrete we’ve invested in controlling the river, as well as all the technology of daily living that depends on burning carbon fuels, not to mention the methane from livestock and human waste – all our gaseous carbon emissions have increased the heat-holding capacity of the atmosphere, which in turn increases the heat energy driving our weather systems. We’ve seen this just this past year: how that changing balance can result in ‘atmospheric rivers’ of vapor forming over the ocean and dumping huge snowpacks when it condenses over the mountains – but then being back on the ‘abnormally dry’ edge of drought within a few months of the day-to-day water-sucking aridification that is the shape of the future.

So we Anthropocenes have conquered the river, bridled the dragon – but as we saw in the previous post here, we lost a full third of the river as the collateral consequences, unforeseen or just ignored, of the conquest. And all responsible prognosticators project that we will lose maybe another sixth of the river by mid-century to our drying out of the planet.

There are a number of ways to look at this. One would be to say, like Eric Orsborn, okay, there have been setbacks, but we can’t stop now; we need to finish the job. And he is far from the only Phoenician saying that. The state has a governor now and a Water Resources Department who know when it’s time to call a halt, but the state also has a Water Infrastructure Finance Authority charged with creating new water supplies for the state. The Mexican desal plant and megamile pipeline is just one idea in WIFA’s portfolio of possibilities; the old unkillable idea of bringing water over from the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers is still on their list.

‘Those are big, audacious ideas, but I don’t think any are off the table,’ WIFA director Chuck Podolak told The Guardian. ‘We’re going to seek the wild ideas and fund the good ones.’ The romance of conquest throbs on; Hoover Dam was a wild idea a century ago, so why stop now?

A water policy analyst at Arizona State University, Kathryn Sorensen, told The Guardian that ‘the degree of [Buckeye’s] success will depend on the degree to which people are willing to pay for those more expensive solutions. But it’s absolutely feasible. We pave over rivers, we build sea walls, we drain swamps, we destroy wetlands, we import water supplies where they never would have otherwise gone. Humans always do outlandish things, it’s what we do.”

There is diminishing enthusiasm today, however, for the romance of conquest; dwellers in the megacities are increasingly reluctant to embrace higher water bills in order to finance more growth, more people, more traffic, longer lines everywhere – San Diego is an example today. The same is true for urban/suburban water conservation; there is a romantic appeal to helping one’s city by conserving in an emergency situation, a drought period or a maintenance shutdown; but conservation-in-perpetuity just to make more water available for growth lacks that romantic appeal.

For many of us, the ‘romance of the river’ has probably shifted 180 degrees over the past half century to a belated appreciation for the ‘natural river’: the Colorado River that once flowed to the ocean in a two-month flood and watered a beautiful wild delta, the river that would flow through a resurrected Glen Canyon if the dam were taken down, et cetera. This eco-rec perspective nurtures the belief that the world would be a better place if we would ‘just stop digging’ and leave it to nature to heal itself from our efforts. This idea has the ‘radiant color of romance’ for many of us, but it also has its underlying naked facts – not least of which are nature’s extreme remedies for a swarming species overpopulating its resource base.

I tend to think, myself, that, yes, we can’t stop now with our tinkering and meddling; we are all too deeply into this love-hate relationship with nature. Just as we will continue to thwart nature with vaccines against its leveling pandemics, we will continue to try to keep passable water in the pipes and faucets, on the fields, and in the recreational reaches for an ever-growing population because that is who we are; it’s what we do.

But as we go about the challenge of planning for management beyond 2026 – learning from the past century’s mistakes, we should hope – we might also hope we can interpret the challenge a little more sensitively, and carry forward the romance with the river a little more intelligently, and maybe a little more – lovingly? The dragon is, after all, harnessed and bridled, more needing care than conquest. There are ideas in that direction to look at….

can we find ways to do what we to do that will reinvigorate the call to adventure – but maybe with a shifting toward  that will provide the kind of challenge, the willingness to engage, the sense of adventure that we seem to need to really get into doing it?

Okay – enough on that; next week back to how we might carry our romance with the Colorado River forward a little more intelligently, maybe more sensitively, maybe a little more – lovingly? The dragon, after all, is harnessed and bridled, more needing care than conquest.

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    1. A fair question, and one I’ll try to deal with in future posts. But in short form – it can only happen responsibly if we do concur that the river ought to me managed as one river, top to bottom, probably with a single Colorado River Authority, set up something like the Upper Colorado River Commission (the states plus a federal presence). It would have to be a taxing authority somehow, with everyone who uses the water being ‘asked’ to kick in proportionate to their use. Beneficiaries pay, in other words. Because most of the critical headwaters is public land, the ‘federal presence’ on the Authority board will probably have to be from the land management agencies, but they will then have to take ‘securing favorable flows’ as a conscious primary responsibility rather than the afterthought it is now. There are other big problem to work – primary among them, a sufficient labor force to do what needs to be done in the headwaters forests and meadowlands, which brings me back to wistful thinking about a national service program…. But more on all this in future posts. Thanks for the question, Ray.

  1. Can’t wait for next weeks intelligent adventure story on our romance with the Colorado river.

  2. You and I have made this journey about the river in different ways. As a youngster I was thrilled by some of the modern titans, especially Steve Reynolds of New Mexico and Wes Steiner of Arizona. who were both deeply rooted in reality unlike most of their colleagues who were as political but not as realistic.. I took me years to see beyond the titans to the reality of the the river and its humble and sometimes wrong minded uses and to see the illusions thrown up by agencies and states to justify their actions. To my mind Reynolds and Steiner were the romantics who loved and understood the river and the calculating political types will never be able to understand it. And in contemporary terms It is one George Sibley, romantic, who best captures this great stream.

  3. Very well said George! I liked following the dragon image throughout. “Conservation-in-perpetuity to make more water available for growth” of course that isn’t appealing. I hope people aren’t thinking of it that way, but I’m sure some are. Another way to look at it – “conservation-in-perpetuity” to nourish the dragon?

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