YUMA, Ariz. — From glacial trickle to sluggish ditch, the Colorado River is a 1,440-mile spine of life. Everything it touches thrives and prospers. Everything else is sagebrush and sand.
It is the American Nile, more precious than coal or timber or gold. Puny compared to the miles-wide Mississippi or the mighty, muddy Missouri, the Colorado sometimes acts more creek than river. But its history is linked with two of the world's wonders--the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam.
Today the Colorado River gives sustenance to nearly 15 million people and countless cows. Seven Western states--Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California--and Mexico raid the river for their legal share, quarreling over every drop.
California, the biggest guzzler on the river, has always been Arizona's archrival for water. Arizona challenged the Colorado River compact of 1922 three times before the Supreme Court--the final ruling in 1964 ended 11 years of lawsuits that cost California and Arizona $5 million in legal fees.
The court upheld the agreement, which arbitrarily parceled out the river to the seven Western states long before air conditioning and irrigation triggered a Southwestern population explosion.
That compact has kept neighbor states constantly at odds with each other, but it also united them in their opposition to Mexican claims on "their" river.
Is there enough water flowing between the Colorado River's narrow banks to keep up with the West's needs?
No, say most experts. At least not the way it's being used now, with almost 90% of its water earmarked for agriculture. Farmers fear that the Sun Belt's urban expansion will reach out from the megalopolises to snatch away their convoluted, long-cherished water rights. Power in America rests with the numbers.
Phoenix and Tucson have the numbers. They're 200 miles east of the Colorado River, on higher ground, but their politicians have found the water for their constituents by going back to the age-old source that's synonymous with the West.
Out here, it is said, water runs uphill, toward money. Water means power. Power means the ability to get more water.
In the waning days of December and the dawn of the new year, the power brokers plan to turn on what will probably be the last big faucet on the finite Colorado River.
The Central Arizona Project is an engineering feat that lifts water over mountains. It has been a century in the dreaming stage, on Congress' plate for four decades, under construction the last 12 years.
Its foes call it a pork-barrel boondoggle and environmental disaster. Its champions call it a godsend that will make central Arizona blossom.
Gov. Bruce Babbitt says the water project is "Arizona's last water hole."
On paper, the Colorado River is already overcommitted by the mistakes Uncle Sam made with the 1922 Compact. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency mainly responsible for water development in the West, predicts that demand will outstrip supply by 2000. California water officials believe the Colorado River's point of no return comes in 1990.
Without its water, the cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Denver would be gasping for a drink.
Without its water, the lettuce in New York delicatessens, the beef on Kansas City plates, the carrots in San Francisco shopping carts would become Epicurean delights for the rich.
Without its water, the Sun Belt would have fewer golf courses, swimming pools and suburban sprawl.
" . . . A very mighty river, which ran so great a fury of a storm that we could hardly sail against it," wrote Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcon in his ship's log when he first journeyed up the Colorado from the Gulf of California in 1540.
Now this silty, salty artery, whose name means "rusty red" in Spanish, is a vast, gurgling plumbing system. From its birth 14,000 feet high in the Colorado Rockies to its death at sea level in Mexico, dams, canals, tunnels, pipelines and reservoirs divert, discharge or hoard at the flick of a switch, the push of a computer key.
Its dams provide electricity for nearly 6 million people, and 13 million Americans play in or near its channel annually. Its waters irrigate 15.2% of this nation's produce, and 15% of America's livestock are succored by it.
"Try as anyone will, it cannot be characterized other than a fully controlled river . . . " said Arleigh B. West, a Bureau of Reclamation regional director, in 1968. "The river's flow can be manipulated in the same fashion as the garden hose on the tap outside your home, and is."
Not quite. In 1983, heavy Rocky Mountain snows and quick spring thaws left Lakes Powell, Mead, Mohave and Havasu--all created by damming the Colorado--full.
The Bureau of Reclamation was forced to release water rapidly all along the lower Colorado River basin south of Lees Ferry, Ariz. The result was seven deaths and millions of dollars in property damage in the United States and Mexico.