Water Shed

By Campbell, Paulette W. | Humanities, September/October 2001 | Go to article overview

Water Shed


Campbell, Paulette W., Humanities


AT THE LEGACY OF SEVEN STATES COLORADO AT THE LEGACY OF THE COLORADO

Of the ur basic elements once believed to make up the universe-earth, air, fire, and water-water may be the one most often taken for granted, says oral historian and folklorist Jack Loeffler. That is, he says, unless you live on the West Coast, particularly in communities along the 1,700-mile river and tributaries known as the Colorado River Watershed.

"It's a different culture out here," says Loeffler, whose home is Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of the seven states the river travels along. "Water is so integral to our existence and our worries. If you look back in history, you see instances where battles were fought over a pond or maybe a spring for cattle to water. Then and now, it determines territoriality in the West." "Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West," a joint project of the state humanities councils of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, will explore the historical connections and current interdependence of watershed communities that depend on the river.

More than one hundred programs will focus on the diversity of communities, their histories and economies, and the values and meanings associated with the river. "Moving Waters" will also include a radio documentary produced by Loeffler, and each project site will host a traveling exhibition for one month, along with three months of lectures and reading discussions.

"The Colorado River Watershed binds and defines the West," explains Dan Shilling, project director and executive director of the Arizona Humanities Council. "By focusing on the river, we can see much that is distinctive about Western history and, just the same, much that is shaping the future of

the West."

According to Shilling, the river determined nineteenth-century settlement patterns. During the first half of the twentieth century, dams and diversions plumbed the river to support economies of extraction such as mining and agriculture. Today, Shilling says, "Thirty million people, most living in distant urban centers, have come to rely on the river; and most Western issues, whether environmental, agricultural, recreational, political, or economical and social, can be traced to the Colorado River."

"Moving Waters" is divided into three sections, River Land, River Law, and River Lore, which examine the geological, historical, environmental, and technological forces that shape Western water; the history of the Colorado River and the law; and the art and lore inspired by the dynamic connections between people and the river.

River Land looks at what the river has meant for river-dependent communities. The twenty-two sites that will host the project "reflect the river realities as a source for transportation, exploration, agriculture, conflict, change, continuity, recreation, natural resource extraction, and binational tensions," says Nancy Dallett, project coordinator.

For example, the Aztec Ruins and Salmon Ruins near Farmington, New Mexico, and the Mogolon/Mimbres culture of the Gila Cliff dwellings near Silver City, New Mexico, are sites with prehistoric and cultural ties to the Colorado River. By hosting "Moving Waters," both will have an opportunity to trace those ties.

Countless rivers and streams in the water-poor West have suffered damage from dam projects in the first half of the twentieth century Fisheries were devastated, and several species of salmon and other commercially important fish were put on the endangered list. Key battles over dams were waged at two sites in Arizona-Glenn Canyon and Parker Dam-where dam construction prompted the Arizona governor to call on the National Guard to defend the Colorado River against California consumption.

Other sites were selected to host "Moving Waters" because they shed light on contemporary issues. The recent population explosion in Las Vegas, for example, means that the hundreds of thousands of new residents in the state are depleting Nevada's relatively small supply of Colorado River water.

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