Colorado River
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 easily.

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 traditional crops. 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,