The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene

Colorado River

Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.

Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,” lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.” And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry”the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.

Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.

Meanwhile, from the Mountain Gazette perspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.

I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.

I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.

Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.

Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).

The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.

There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?

Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”

So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.

So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”

Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.

So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.

Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.

The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)

Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.

The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.

A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.

It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.

One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.

The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.

Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”

But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …

We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” 

— Stewart Brand

Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

15 thoughts on “The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene”

  1. Sibley cuts through a lot of crap here, forcing us to listen, and maybe even think a little. My own lamentations have sounded threadbare and hypocritical for years.

  2. At this point, I also think it’s good to drop pretense of “wild” or “natural” when discussing something as managed and busy as the Colorado River (or Indian Peaks Wilderness, or Joshua Tree National Park etc…) as such notions allow us to continue the illusion that pristine wilderness exists anywhere in the southwestern United States. It does not, not really. Sure, you could meet your doom from flash floods or mountain lion teeth on any given day, but only because some land manager somewhere, usually based upon some semblance of public sentiment, has decided not to rechannel or dam every last arroyo or poison every last mountain lion. It looks natural and wild, and one day it will be again, but for now we’re just keeping up appearances.

    I grew up on the Fraser River, arguably the most threatened stretch of river in the whole Colorado River basin, and I just finished a long hike along its banks. Denver Water is pulling the majority of the river already (60%) and right now is working on diverting an additional 20-30% (they own 90% of the senior water rights on that river) to keep the Kentucky bluegrass growing green. Local activists are fighting it tooth and nail, but they’re also planning for what appears to be the inevitable, and working to mitigate the damage via the channel deepening/narrowing efforts Sibley mentions in Eagle County.

    As I hiked, I saw some of these projects myself. At this point, just a couple years after being created, they look completely natural, and for many stretches of the river, which runs too shallow and gets too warm, they offer the only viable trout habitat. 44 miles of the Fraser River and its tributaries could be altered in this way at a cost of just 53 CENTS per Denver Water customer per year, but Denver Water has balked, probably because admitting that the river needs mitigating means admitting that there is a problem, and Denver Water is not about to admit that its diversions have any impact on the life that depends upon the Fraser River.

    I’d rather have a wild and crazy Fraser River that floods wide willowed wetlands each spring and harbors countless cutthroat trout, but that hasn’t happened for 70 or 80 years, and probably will never happen again, at least not with the cutthroat. Which means that I’ll settle for a living river, albeit in a smaller and completely human managed form. My fear is that the Fraser won’t even be allowed that much leeway, and that it will be engineered out of existence…heretofore dubbed the “Arroyo Fraser” or “Fraser Wash”.

    Anyway, onward into the Anthropocene, aka that stratified layer of concrete geology and plastic archaeology that future scientists will uncover and say AH HAH! Here’s the event, perhaps a mass die off topped by a thin layer of radioactive dust, perhaps just the disappearance of mammilian fossils larger than a rat, denoting the end of the Cenozoic.

    1. Mr. Clayton: you mentioned/included Indian Peaks wilderness along with the “busy and managed (not-so-wild)” Colorado River. many years ago I used to roam through (the same Indian Peaks along Divide south of RockyMtnNatPark?) and it certainly seemed wild. Maybe it was (and still is) tooo easy to “lose myself” there, but, well, it was easy.
      Have things changed — if this is the same I.P. W. A.? I suspect I know what the problem might be … I roamed there in the later 1960’s. After all, it is 40 years and, oh, a million or two people later …
      regards,
      Lou S

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  3. thanx again, Mr. (Dr.) Sibley — in my limited exposure to the whatevers, what you fleshed out and discussed was NEW TO ME. And reading your essay, I realize that I should DO MORE RESEARCH (sometimes), when not off-the-cuff so much.

    Let’s hope this works. Let’s hope that the Anthropocene sees some real ‘evolution.’

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