On the plane up to Salt Lake City for the #omnigames I read Wade Davis’ River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado River. The timing was great: out the window I looked out to an awesome view of the Grand Canyon. As it turns out, we spend quite a bit of time playing in Colorado River basin states plus after reading The Emerald Mile, I realized there was lots to learn about this massive and unique river.
Although River Notes had its share of interesting river tidbits, it was shorter and a lot less comprehensive than I’d hoped for. Davis’ intention seemed to be a plea for better river system policy (a worthy goal!) than documenting the natural and human history of the river.
The Mississippi River is known as “Big Muddy” however historically the Colorado moved a huge amount of sediment to the sea: “The average daily sediment load was five hundred thousand tons, enough to fill a hundred freight trains, each with a hundred cars, with each car bearing a load of two hundred thousand pounds.” Before the construction of the dams, “One hundred seventy million cubic cards of sand and silt” were moved down river—more than “three times the amount of dirt excavated to create the Panama Canal.” The Colorado is not the longest North American river nor does it move the most water but in four hundred miles it drops “some 2,500 feet in elevation, a rate of descent twenty-five times that of the Mississippi.”
I’d read a little bit about the formation of the modern Salton Sea in The Emerald Mile but enjoyed reading more about how in 1905 the flooded Colorado defied the man made structures separating it into its natural channel and the California Development Company’s Alamo Canal. For sixteen months the river flowed into the below sea level depression (an ancient path of the river itself).
As mentioned previously, most of River Notes is a plea to save the Colorado River. Davis discusses the appalling water policy surrounding cattle ranching and meat production (“in California, Arizona, and Nevada, roughly 85 percent of the water allotment goes to agriculture, with roughly half the irrigated land devoted to the raising of meat”). He does note a minor success story in the (very) partial restoration of the Colorado River Delta. “What began in the 1970s as a small island of fertility, fed in part by natural springs, runoff, and storm surges from the sea, has grown a hundredfold to become a lush wetland covering more than forty thousand acres. Land that had been sterile for a half century took but eight years to regenerate.”