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Geographers can tell you that the one thing that most rivers and their
adjacent flood plains in the world have in common is that they have rich
histories associated with human settlement and development. This
especially true in arid regions which are very dependent upon water. Two
excellent examples are the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers which
show use the relationship between rivers and concentrations of people.
However, the Colorado River is not such a good example along most
segments of its course. There is no continuous transportation system
that parallels the rivers course, and settlements are clustered. The
rugged terrain and entrenched river channels are the major reasons for
sparse human settlement. We ask ourselves, did the Colorado River help
or hinder settlement in the Western United States?
As settlers began to move westward, the Southwest was considered
to be a place to avoid. Few considered it a place to traverse, to spread
Christianity, and a possible source of furs or mineral wealth. Finding a
reliable or accessible water source, and timber for building was
difficult to find. There was a lack of land that could be irrigated
By the turn of the century, most present day cities and towns
were already established. Trails, roads, and railroads linked several
areas with neighboring regions. Although the Colorado River drainage
system was still not integrated. In the mid 1900’s many dams had been
built to harness and use the water. A new phase of development occurred
at the end of the second World War. There was a large emphasis on
recreation, tourism, and environmental preservation.
The terrain of the Colorado River is very unique. It consists of
Wet Upper Slopes, Irregular Transition Plains and Hills, Deep
Canyonlands, and the Dry Lower Plains.
Wet Upper Slopes: Consist of numerous streams that feed into the
Colorado River from stream cut canyons, small flat floored valleys often
occupied by alpine lakes and adjacent steep walled mountain peaks. These
areas are heavily forested and contain swiftly flowing streams, rapids,
and waterfalls. These areas have little commercial value except as
watershed, wildlife habitat, forest land, and destinations for hikers,
fishermen, and mountaineers.
Irregular Transition Plains and Hills: These areas are favorable
for traditional economic development. It consists of river valleys with
adequate flat land to support farms and ranches. Due to the rolling
hills, low plateaus, and mountain slopes, livestock grazing is common.
The largest cities of the whole drainage system are found here.
Deep Canyonlands: Definitely the most spectacular and least
developed area along the Colorado River. These deep gorges are primarily
covered by horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks, of which sand stone is
the most abundant. The Grand Canyon does not only display spectacular
beauty, but numerous other features such as mesas, buttes, spires,
balancing rocks, natural arches and bridges, sand dunes, massive
sandstone walls, and pottholed cliffs.
Dry Lower Plains: These consist of the arid desert areas. These
areas encounter hot summers and mild winters. Early settlement was
limited because most of the land next to the river was not well suited
for irrigation agriculture. The area is characterized by limited flat
land, poor soils, poor drainage, and too hot of conditions for most
The Colorado River was first navigated by John Wesley Powell,
in his 1869 exploration through the Marble and Grand Canyons. The
Colorado River begins high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The water
begins from melting snow and rain, and is then supplemented by the
Gunnison, Green, San Juan, Little Colorado, Virgin, and Gila Rivers.
Before any dams were built, the Colorado River carried 380,000 million
tons of silt to the Sea of Cortez. Along it’s path, it carves out the
Marble, Grand, Black, Boulder, and Topok Canyons. The Grand Canyon being
the most popular, which is visited by numerous tourists every year, plays
a large role in western tourism. The Grand Canyon is in fact one of the
World’s Seven Wonders. The Colorado Basin covers 240,000 square miles of
drainage area. At certain points along the river, it turns into a
raging, muddy, rapid covered mass of water. Unlike other rivers, the
Colorado River doesn’t meet the ocean in a grand way, but rather in a
small trickle. Almost all of the water that passes down the river is
spoken for. It passes through seven Western States, travels 1,700 miles,
and descends more than 14,000 feet before emptying into the sea, with
more silt and salinity than any river in North America. A river not used
for commerce, or any degree of navigation other than recreational, and
virtually ignored until the turn of the century.
The Colorado River is the most fought over, litigated,
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Imperial Valley, Colorado River, Lower Colorado River Valley, Coachella Valley, All-American Canal, Salton Sea, Alamo Canal, New River, Imperial Dam, Imperial Irrigation District, Glen Canyon Dam, Salton Sink
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