Colorado River

Art work by Charlie Stowers

By Alex Harper

Still a force, the Colorado River once was mightier. It meandered out of its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, across the plateaus of Utah and northern Arizona before turning southward by the time it reaches southern Nevada. From there, the river towed the current border between Arizona and California, flowed into Mexico, and emptied into the Sea of Cortez. All along the river and at its terminus in Mexico, dense cottonwoods and willows accompanied its riverbanks and flood plains, providing habitat and refuge for the rich biodiversity of the American deserts. Even Jaguars once wandered the banks of the Colorado in Mexico and the southern extents of adjacent border states.

Today, the river is a topic of concern and disagreement. Decades of increasing water demands for agriculture and desert communities such as Las Vegas have diverted water away from the river. At the same time, an unrelenting drought has taken hold of just about the entirety of the Colorado River watershed. With far less precipitation and runoff from snowmelt between its terminus in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains, the river isn’t naturally replenishing its water volume. The river hobbles along now, demonstrating its former stature in the form of steep canyons and wide, desiccated flood plains.
Currently, about ninety percent of our water is drawn from Lake Mead, a reservoir filled by the Colorado River. Water from the reservoir is diverted up to cities such as Las Vegas and Henderson for just about any imaginable use of water. Most of the water that makes it into draining systems after use is diverted into the network of washes that flow naturally down the sloping gradient of the valley where it is treated. After treatment, water makes its way back into Lake Mead.

Because of this strategy, the people of the Las Vegas Valley have more agency than they might currently be aware of at this moment in time, perhaps more so than the residents of than any other desert city. Intentional planning with our water and the natural topography of the area puts us in a position to return much of what is taken from what is sourced from the Colorado River. Much of what we can take out can be returned.

And in between our metropolitan area and Lake Mead, examples of the importance of this scarce desert resource can be found in tandem with visionary planning by a multitude of agencies: the Las Vegas Wash. Along the wash, a band of willows, cottonwoods and other streamside plants has emerged. And with this habitat, wildlife that finds stretches of habitat along the Colorado River no longer existent or habitable can find it between Clark County Wetlands Park and the terminus of the wash at the west end of Lake Mead in an area known as “33 Hole”. Visit any section of the wash between these two points, and the success will be immediately obvious. Beavers have found some respite in Clark County Wetlands Park, and Ospreys forage for fish all winter long. Exposed mudflats and weirs lure concentrations of waterfowl and shorebirds. Groves of cottonwoods provide shade, cover, and habitat for overwintering, migrating, and breeding hawks, owls, flycatchers, warblers and more. Common Yellowthroats, Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds belt their songs from cattails and thick streamside vegetation all spring long. Virtually none of these animals would be present without the green corridor that serves as a proxy for miles of lost habitat all along the Colorado River.

The successful management of the Las Vegas wash can serve as an example, as well as a source of enjoyment to anyone who visits. We have something to be proud of in it. Yet, larger issues remain. We are the whims of a drying climate, and we shouldn’t count on it to somehow produce enough water to replenish what has been lost and then some. What we can do, however, is to be wiser and more intentional how we use our water, starting at this moment.