River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan

River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan

River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan

River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan

Excerpt

When the famous explorer John Wesley Powell passed the mouth of the San Juan River on 31 July 1869, he barely acknowledged it. During the next decade, when his geologists and archaeologists fanned out to explore, map, and generally reconnoiter the Colorado Plateau, the last blank spot on the United States map, they ignored the waterway the Utes call River Flowing from the Sunrise. For Major Powell, as for most nineteenth-century Americans, the San Juan River country remained a terra incognita. There were simply few pressing reasons—geological, agricultural, or cultural—for most Americans to know more about it. For the federal government, Powell was the main spokesman on western land affairs in the post–Civil War period, and for most Euro-Americans, the San Juan was a backwater.

Well into the twentieth century, even for Indians like the Utes and Navajos, the Lower San Juan functioned as a kind of refuge beyond the reach of Indian agencies at Shiprock, New Mexico, and Towaoc, Colorado. The San Juan’s exclusion from Rinehart’s Rivers of America book series in the 1940s likewise indicated its relative obscurity. Writing about the Colorado River for that series, Frank Waters noted that the San Juan is “the largest river in New Mexico. Its annual discharge of 2,500,000 acre-feet is over twice that of the noted Rio Grande. Yet it remains one of the least known rivers in America.” Past judgments aside, it should be better known—for both local and national reasons.

Today Utah’s San Juan River, like nearly all waterways in the West, is a river in demand both regionally and nationally. Its water is becoming ever more valuable in this always-arid landscape. Various Indian tribes are claiming their water rights as granted by the Supreme Court’s 1908 decision known as the Winters Doctrine; federal water engineers are controlling the river’s flow with two large dams, one near the Colorado-New Mexico border and one past the river’s end near the Utah-Arizona border; federal land agencies, obligated by the Endangered Species Act, are trying to save animals like the Colorado pikeminnow (née squawfish), the peregrine falcon, and the willow flycatcher; private and commercial river runners are demanding an equal say in the river’s use for their sport and businesses; farmers are trying to maintain their traditional water allotments; towns along the river are clamoring for their share of the water; and, amid all the arguing, Indians and Anglos alike are reasserting the spiritual significance of the river. The San Juan River today stands at a crucial juncture in its twelve-thousand-year history of human occupation and use.

While demands on the river are increasing each year, compared with many rivers draining into the Pacific, the San Juan is sparsely settled and has been intellectually neglected. Because of the area’s ruggedness and aridity, especially along the Utah section, relatively few people have settled the river’s sandy banks. Although the human population in the region has increased significantly over the past century or so, the San Juan below Four Corners remains an area where the human touch is not always obvious. Despite the increased use of the river and the two dams controlling it, it is still possible to talk about managing it in a “naturalized” way. Parts of the San Juan today, especially in its canyons, strongly resemble the river of hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Still it is both a natural and social space. Historian Richard White’s description of the Columbia . . .

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