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THE RIVER REVISITED : The Colorado is the Most Used, Politicized and Tightly Controlled River in the West. How Is It Aging? A Veteran Colorado-Watcher Takes a 1,700-Mile Catch-up Odyssey

First Of Two Parts

October 29, 1995| Philip L. Fradkin | Fradkin, a former Times writer, is the author of six books, including "A River No More: the Colorado River and the West" and "The Seven States of California: a Natural and Human History."

It had been more than a dozen years since Goldie Guldenschuh, the chief pilot for a Yuma, Ariz., charter service, had flown over the Colorado River delta. The flight passed over the hub of the cocaine corridor, where most of the Columbian drug cartels' product was unloaded from airplanes for shipment to the streets of Southern California. The flat river delta in Mexico was an ideal place for remote landing strips. There was hardly any other reason to fly in a small plane over the most desolate and inhospitable landscape on the North American continent.

On this morning, Guldenschuh, a self-described desert rat pushing 70, interviewed me at length. He wanted to make sure my purpose was to photograph and write about the delta, which stretches from just below Yuma to the Gulf of California, before he agreed to the unusual flight. The last passenger he had flown over the delta was a kayaker who wanted to scout the maze of channels leading to the gulf during the 1983 floods.

The plane was cleared for takeoff shortly before 8:30 a.m., and we headed west into Mexico. A few minutes later, Guldenschuh said, "There's the mighty Colorado River." There it was, indeed, a thin trickle just below the last of 17 major dams and numerous diversions. Those large public works stored and transported the water that was spread over 2 million irrigated acres and was consumed by more than 21 million people and in seven states and two countries.

Then it disappeared. The Colorado sank into the sand and became a braided, dry riverbed until it popped up again near the intersection of some unlined irrigation canals. This disappearing and reappearing act occurred once more before the river resumed its erratic course to the Gulf of Mexico. The languid river was now the turgid product of pesticide and saline-laced water returning to the river from the agricultural fields below Mexicali.

The Colorado had been drained many times along the 1,700-mile journey from its pristine headwaters in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming. (The technical beginning of a river system is the headwaters farthest from its end. For the Colorado River system, this is the Green River in western Wyoming.) After 15 years, I could see that it was still "A River No More," the title of my 1981 book about the river and the West. I first came to the Colorado as the environmental writer and ski editor of the Los Angeles Times. It had amazed me that I could ski in Aspen, Colo., and then, at least theoretically, drink and bathe in that same snowmelt in Los Angeles. I was curious about the linkage. So in June of 1973, I set off on my first journey from the headwaters to the gulf and subsequently wrote a long story for the newspaper. Several years later, I dealt with river-related issues as assistant secretary of the California Resources Agency. I then returned to writing about the river as western editor of Audubon magazine and as an author.

I made frequent trips on the main stem of the river and its four main tributaries (the Green, upper Colorado, San Juan and Gila rivers) and throughout the 244,000-square-mile watershed. In my book, I had written, "Within a few more years, perhaps 20 or so, there was not going to be enough water to fulfill everybody's desires. The river was running dry." Last year, a high-ranking Interior Department official testified before a congressional committee that water-supply problems would occur in 10 to 20 years. Elizabeth Ann Rieke, then an assistant Interior Department secretary, added, "Even if you apply all the management tools we now have, which are conservation and reuse, you may not be able to satisfy the demand."

As Guldenschuh's Cessna 172 slowly circled the delta, an impractical thought occurred to me. Every politician, every bureaucrat, every water lawyer, every judge who ruled on such matters, every editorial writer who opined on them--in fact, the millions of people in the West who bathed, shaved, cooked, watered their lawns and irrigated their fields with Colorado River water--should be required to walk one mile across the burning sands of the delta to experience firsthand the true cost of living in an arid land and having to import water long distances. Such a wasteland was the heritage of desert civilizations such as the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest. The overuse of water was the undoing of these civilizations.

The delta had not always been a barren land. Seventy-five years ago, naturalist Aldo Leopold described it as a land of "milk and honey" inhabited by snowstorm-like flights of egrets, jaguars and "a welter of fish and fowl." He used such phrases as "green lagoons," "lovely groves" and "awesome jungles." I had been on the ground in the delta and knew that little, if anything, remained of that paradise.

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