Rivers in Deserts of Colorado, Lake Powell and more

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The desert is no place to be without water, which is one of man's most basic survival needs. Deserts are typically associated with extreme heat and aridity. Deserts typically receive less than 10 inches of rain per year. The amount of evaporation in some deserts exceeds the amount of rainfall. Desert moisture typically occurs in short bursts and varies from year to year.

Rivers in Deserts

Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Who would have guessed that the Southwest gets its water from the Colorado River, which runs through three major deserts on its way to the Sea of Cortez? The Colorado River and its tributaries have shaped the history of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, all of which rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries for water. Lake Mead, located behind Hoover Dam, holds nearly a two-year supply of Colorado River water.

It's May, and the summer heat has arrived in Escondido, California. The winds have shifted and are now blowing from the east. I sit on my patio, sipping ice water, as the temperature rises due to the effects of the Santa Ana winds. My glass contains water from the Colorado River. In fact, all of the water we get during the summer comes from the Colorado River. As I drink my water, I consider the journey of the water from its source to the glass in front of me.

Rivers in Deserts

Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam


It begins in the winter with a lot of snow in Colorado's Rocky Mountains and continues into the spring as the melting snow drains away. The water begins as a trickle and quickly grows into a major river that flows to the Sea of Cortez. The image below was captured during a space shuttle flight over the Southwest at an altitude of 154 miles. The Grand Canyon can be seen near the center of this high-oblique photograph looking southwest.

The Colorado River flows from Lake Powell in southern Utah through the Grand Canyon, westward to Lake Mead in eastern Nevada, and then southward to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.

Rivers in Deserts

View from Space

The Kaibab Plateau to the north and the Coconino Plateau to the south are the dark forested areas on either side of the Grand Canyon. The San Francisco Peaks' snow-covered Humphreys Peak can be seen south of the Coconino Plateau. The tree-covered Mogollon Rim is located just south of the mountains. The Painted Desert's bright orangish-red sands can be seen east of the Grand Canyon. North of the Kaibab Plateau, the forested Wasatch Mountain Range of southern Utah can be seen. The Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley of southern California can be seen southwest of Lake Mead. Clouds cover the Pacific Ocean west of the Salton Sea.

Rivers in Deserts

Water and the Desert

The Colorado River has left its imprint on the land for millions of years. Since its formation, the river has been hard at work carving great chasms, including the Grand Canyon, on its 1,400-mile journey from Colorado's Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez. By diverting the Colorado River's waters for irrigation, early settlers attempted to mitigate the river's impact on the land. However, the Colorado River, fed by melting snows in the spring and early summer, floods low-lying lands along its route every year, destroying lives, crops, and property. The river often dried to a trickle in late summer and early fall, too low to divert. Crops and livestock withered and died in the absence of water.

The river's usefulness was limited by the cycle of either too much or too little water. The river had to be tamed in order to protect the low-lying valleys from flooding and to ensure a consistent, year-round water supply. A disastrous flood in California's Imperial Valley in 1905, caused by the river changing course, provided additional impetus for its control and regulation.

Early spring flash floods exacerbated a normally high spring runoff, resulting in the flood. These high flows washed away small earth dams built in a temporary channel cut for the purpose of diverting river water to the Imperial Canal. On its way to the Imperial Valley, this canal passed through Mexico. The river changed course and began flowing into the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea as the heavy flows deepened the channel.

For 16 months, the river flowed into the valley before being returned to its original course. It destroyed homes and crops, severely damaged highways, railroads, and irrigation systems, and increased the Salton Sea's size from 22 to 500 square miles at the time. The Salton Sea is now 360 square miles in size and has 110 miles of shoreline.

On its way to the sea, the Colorado River travels a long distance. There are many beautiful spots to see the river and the landscape it has created. Add human interaction to control the river via a series of dams, and you've got some spectacular recreational areas and resources never seen before in the desert.

To explore the river, begin your journey at Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, both of which were carved by rain, wind, and river erosion. The Colorado and Green rivers cut through Canyonlands. Their meeting point serves as the park's focal point. Canyonlands' entrance is close to Arches', and the two parks make a nice two-day outing. The Colorado River is not crossed by a highway. It can be explored in about two or three weeks, with several side trips to some of the most interesting places in the United States.

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