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A 1946 report called for the Colorado River System to be dammed, diverted, and industrialized
|Jonathan P. Thompson|
June 1, 2022
Reading and listening to accounts of running the Colorado River and its tributaries before the dams came can be heartbreaking because it reminds us of all that has been lost. Imagine what Tiyo, the Hopi boy who piloted a cottonwood raft from somewhere in Glen Canyon to the Sea of Cortez long, long ago, saw on his journey. Consider the experiences of John Wesley Powell, E.C. La Rue, Emery Goodridge, Bert Loper, and, albeit not on a boat, Everett Ruess. Those experiences cannot be duplicated, even in some modern form. Where once ran water wild and free, now are still and stagnant reservoirs held back by giant, concrete monoliths.
But sometimes when I read old papers about the Colorado River Basin, I become grateful, as well, knowing that it could have been a heck of a lot worse. Such is my experience recently as I’ve made my way through the 1946 Bureau of Reclamation report titled: The Colorado River: A Natural Menace Becomes a National Resource¹.
The rather off-putting name, aside, the 300-page report is a fascinating read, chock full of information about population in the Basin, industries, and so forth. But it’s also a blueprint for plumbing the Colorado River system, from the headwaters to the Sea of Cortez, with diversions, dams, canals, hydropower plants, tunnels, and trans-basin exports. That’s the insane part.
As I read the report, instead of envisioning all that had been lost to development, I imagined what the West would look like had the water buffalos realized all of their dam dreams. It’s scary. Nary a mile of river would have remained unaltered. They had plans for dams in the Grand Canyon, in Glen Canyon, in Cataract Canyon; on the Green and the Yampa; in Echo Park and in the Goosenecks of the San Juan; and, perhaps most byzantine, the Animas-La Plata project (which I’ll get to in a moment). But first, a little sampling of potential projects:
- The Glen Canyon Project: The proposal is similar to what was eventually realized. Notable quote from the report: “This lake would have unusual recreational opportunities.”
- Dark Canyon Project: This dam would have been on the Colorado River a few miles above the current Hite bridge and the reservoir would have inundated all of Cataract Canyon and stretched to the edge of Moab and almost to Green River.
- The Moab Project: A dam on the Colorado just upstream from Moab with a reservoir stretching all the way to the Dewey Bridge.
- Dewey Project: A dam on the Colorado three miles downstream from its confluence with the Dolores River. The 8.2 million acre feet reservoir would have extended 55 miles up the Colorado and 20 miles up the Dolores and would have inundated Cisco. From the report:“The town of Cisco, population 53, lies entirely within the reservoir site but if relocated on the reservoir shore line and on both a railroad and transcontinental highway, it should have ample opportunity to become a resort center.”
- Echo Park Project: A dam on the Green River 3.5 miles below its confluence with the Yampa with a lake that would inundate Dinosaur National Monument. This is the reservoir David Brower and the Sierra Club—with help from the coal industry, which didn’t want more hydroelectric competition—were able to stop.
- Bluff Project: A dam on the San Juan River just below Comb Wash. It would have put the town of Bluff under about 100 feet of water.
- Goosenecks Project: A 500,000 acre foot reservoir with hydroelectric dam some 43 miles downstream from Bluff.
- Slick Horn Canyon Project: Another San Juan River dam, probably just below Slick Horn Canyon.
And now for the big doozy: The Animas-La Plata Project in Southwestern Colorado. Now, I know some of you will think, Here he goes, talking about the Animas River again. And, yeah, I get it. But as crazy as all of the aforementioned proposals are, this one was more complex and convoluted and involved than any of the others.
The Animas-La Plata project was first conceived of in the early 1900s. It was intended to move water from Animas River to the “Dry Side” in the La Plata River watershed, about a dozen miles west of the Animas. The Dry Side has oodles of fertile, flat farmland, but not enough water to irrigate it; the Animas Basin has relatively reliable and abundant flows of water, but not a lot of farmable land. The A-LP would provide “supplemental water for 24,700 acres of insufficiently irrigated land in the La Plata River Basin and a full supply for 86,300 acres of new land in that basin and adjacent areas, including 25,500 acres under the Monument Rock project on the Navajo Indian Reservation.”
You might think this would be simple: Just tunnel through the divide between the two watersheds and send the water through. But that’s not nearly as fun as building nine reservoirs, miles of canals and tunnels and conduits, and a handful of hydropower plants. Here’s the rundown:
- An aqueduct would be built near Silverton to catch water from Mineral Creek and Cement Creek and deliver it to the 54,000 acre feet Howardsville Reservoir on the Animas upstream from Silverton. From there, a pressure conduit would send water to a 12 megawatt power plant in Silverton.
- A dam on the Animas at Whitehead Gulch, about four miles below Silverton. Silverton Reservoir would only be about three miles long (and would not inundate Silverton, but would flood the railroad tracks), as its main purpose is for hydropower production and to divert water through a tunnel to the Lime Creek drainage, where …
- … another dam would be built, presumably just above the confluence with Cascade Creek. In addition to the water from Silverton Reservoir, the Lime Creek Reservoir would also get “unregulated inflows from Cascade Creek through a collection conduit and tunnel.” And, from Lime Creek another tunnel would lead back through the West Needles to a power plant on the Animas River w/ a static head of 1,155 feet and installed capacity of 40 megawatts. Wow.
- The dam for the 140,000 acre feet Teft Reservoir would be on the Animas River somewhere below Tefft (the proper spelling) Spur (close to the Cascade Wye). Maybe it would be in the Rockwood Gorge, but I’m not sure. Water would back up into Cascade Creek and, most likely, would inundate Needleton. The railroad tracks would be underwater.
- The main project canal—the one that takes water over to the La Plata—would begin at or just below Teft Dam and go along the west side of the Animas River, intercepting the flows of Hermosa, Junction, and Lightner Creeks, along with storage releases from …
- … Hermosa Park Reservoir (25,000 acre feet) on Hermosa Creek. That would add an interesting twist to skiing the backside of Purgatory. Ice skating, anyone?
- Whether the canal would skirt Durango, or would cross higher ground west of Durango is not clear. But somehow it would wend its way westward, and would “cross the Animas-La Plata Divide northeast of Fort Lewis College and extend across the La Plata River Valley to the Dry Side. It would continue southwest along the Mancos-La Plata Divide to the head of Salt Creek,” which in turn would serve the …
- … Monument Rocks Reservoir (20,000 af) and project lands below it, located north of Shiprock.
- Long Hollow Reservoir (14,000 af) would be “connected the La Plata River by inlet and outlet canals.” Another canal from Long Hollow would irrigate the McDermott-Farmington Glade area near Colorado-New Mexico state line. (Note: This is the only component of the 1946 plan that got built).
- State Line Reservoir (32,000 af) would straddle the State Line on the La Plata River. A canal would lead from there to the southwest to …
- … Meadows Reservoir (11,400 af).
The Animas-La Plata Project ultimately was built, but it looks nothing like this. It’s a single off-stream reservoir, Lake Nighthorse, filled with water pumped uphill from the Animas River. A small amount of water is piped westward, but it doesn’t make it to the Dry Side. In fact, the water—much of which belongs to the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Tribes—mostly is just sitting there, providing a nice place for Durangoans to cool off on hot summer days. There currently is no mechanism for delivering the water to the tribes. Long Hollow Reservoir was also constructed later, but separately from the A-LP.
Most of the other projects on the water buffalo wishlist didn’t come to fruition, either, and Cisco, Utah, won’t be a lakeside resort town anytime soon.
The Land Desk is about to take the old Silver Bullet on the road to do some reporting. You know how we fund this stuff? With your subscriptions! We got no ads, no corporate sponsors, no fancy grants — just you (which is a lot). So, yeah, the Bullet is pretty darned fuel efficient, but still with gas prices these days? We sure could use your help. Thanks!
The report came from “On the Colorado,” an amazing website and treasure trove of Colorado River archives and documents. It’s worth a good peruse and a bookmark, for sure.
Thanks for subscribing to The Land Desk, a thrice-weekly newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson, longtime journalist and author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and Sagebrush Empire. This post is public, so feel free to share it.