Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Supported by
This issue of Desert Companion includes a travel guide to mountain towns — where to stay, eat, and play, and what to see in five high-elevation, low-stress destinations within a day’s drive (or less!) of Las Vegas. Bonus: an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.

Chasing Giants

A closeup of a fish swimming in turquoise water
Chris Bair

The Colorado River was once home to a six-foot-long pikeminnow. Where did it go?

In 2006, I traveled to Cambodia to write a story for National Geographic about Zeb Hogan, an American fish biologist who was doing conservation work on the Mekong River. Zeb had just launched what he called “The Megafishes Project,” aimed at finding, studying, and protecting the world’s largest freshwater fish, the 30 or so species that can grow at least six feet long or reach weights of more than 200 pounds, several of which are found in the Mekong. Our work together has continued since then, culminating in a book called Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish, which University of Nevada Press is publishing this month.

Giant freshwater fish, from gargantuan gars to sumo-sized stingrays, are among the most threatened animals on the planet, with many species facing possible extinction. What I learned is that they are also good indicators of river health, and so the book became as much a tale about the poor state of our world’s rivers as the increasingly rare and endangered fish that we find in them.

Some of these giant fish species live in American rivers. As it turns out, one of them once swam in the Colorado River. As most people are aware, the Colorado — on which 40 million people, including Las Vegas residents such as me, today depend — is drying up because of a combination of chronic overuse and a historic drought driven by climate change. In our book, we explore the history and evolution of the river that built the American West. An adapted excerpt follows.

Sponsor Message
Overhead view of a dam on the Colorado River
UNLV Special Collections and Archives

The Nile of North America

Few rivers on Earth have both changed the world through which they flow and had change brought upon them as much as the Colorado River. Following the creation of the Rocky Mountains, beginning 75 million years ago, the Colorado formed as a river flowing straight west. It was not until the rising Colorado Plateau reached its peak six million years ago that the river established its present course, running southwest from the Rockies, through what is now the Grand Canyon, forming a vast marshy delta as it flowed into the Gulf of California.

Of course, the Grand Canyon did not exist then. It was the powerful waters of the Colorado and its tributaries that cut through layers upon layers of rock to forge what is today one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. For millions of years, the Colorado kept flowing, its power unchallenged, until eventually humans set foot in the river, and nothing would ever be the same again.

It was long thought that the first humans settling on the Colorado Plateau — the desert area that today centers on the Four Corners region, where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet — were Paleo-Indians of the Clovis and Folsom cultures, who arrived there around 12,000 years ago. But recent discoveries of human settlements at the Eagle Rock excavation site, near the small town of Delta, Colorado, push that time line back at least 1,000 years.

Over the following millennia, human use of the Colorado River basin revolved primarily around hunting and fishing. But with time, various tribal societies began to garden, and they eventually developed large farms. Indigenous groups are known to have farmed large swaths of land along tributaries in present-day Arizona more than 1,000 years ago. Archaeologists have uncovered giant storage reservoirs and hundreds of miles of ancient canals around Phoenix, evidence of what may have been the largest irrigation system built by prehistoric peoples in North America, a remarkable feat considering canals would have been dug by hand using wood, bone, and stone tools.
But the construction of irrigation canals on some of the Colorado’s tributaries is also believed to have changed the morphology of those waterways, complicating agriculture. When a megadrought hit the region in the 14th century, entire societies soon collapsed. As some tribes moved out of the area, the Navajo, who had migrated from the north, established themselves as the dominant People in the river basin, continuing to farm the land.

Sponsor Message

The first European to discover the river, in 1539, is said to have been the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa, though it is not clear if he entered the river from its mouth or even recognized that there was a major river running north. Instead, it may have been Hernando de Alarcón, another Spanish explorer, who became the first European to ascend the river, which was described at the time as running “with so great a rage into the land that it was a thing to be marvelled at.”

After the United States purchased the territory of the Colorado River basin from Mexico in 1848, the discovery of gold in California triggered a western migration in search of riches. The importance of the Colorado to the future settlement of the southwestern United States became increasingly clear. With water, anything was possible in the desert, and as agriculture intensified throughout the basin, scholars referred to the river as “the Nile of North America.” Like the Nile, the Colorado originated in the mountains, flowed through a hot desert, and carried with it substantial amounts of silt down to the sea.

But the expansion of agriculture required more than small-scale gravity irrigation systems. It demanded big dams. By the turn of the century, most dams that existed in the western United States were small private ventures, mostly constructed from earth and rock, diverting water for mining businesses or irrigation of personal properties. But technology emerged to build bigger concrete dams for larger-scale irrigation, water supply, and flood control, and a new federal program created by the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 paved the way for such dams to be built in the Colorado River basin. Within a few years the first one, the Laguna Diversion Dam, was completed. Located on the main stem of the Colorado, near the Mexican border, the dam diverted water to the farm fields of Arizona’s Yuma Valley. It also ended boat travel to the north.

A plane landed on the Colorado River with three men climbing out
Backstage Library Works
UNLV Libraries

Meanwhile, a much bigger dam was being constructed northeast of Phoenix, on the Salt River, a Colorado tributary. The Theodore Roosevelt Dam would store water and provide flood control at a huge scale. When it opened, in 1911, it was the largest masonry dam in the world — 280 feet high — and for a while Roosevelt Lake, created by the dam, was the world’s largest artificial reservoir. The project cost a staggering $10 million, but was considered a huge economic and engineering success. Irrigating vast land areas, the Roosevelt Dam would contribute, more than any other dam, to the settlement of central Arizona.

California’s farmers also coveted the precious waters of the Colorado, which marks the state line between Arizona and California but never enters the state proper. From early on, California sought to bend the Colorado to its own benefits, sometimes causing great ecological upheaval. One example is California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea. It formed in 1905 when massive flooding caused the Colorado River to break through an irrigation canal headwork that had been built as part of a project to provide water to California’s Imperial Valley. For 18 months, water flowed freely into the Salton basin, before the levee break was filled and the Colorado River forced back into its channel.

Sponsor Message

The newly formed Salton Sea created a rich oasis for birds, and the later introduction of various game fish built up a lucrative sport fishery around the lake. But without a natural outlet, water trapped more than 200 feet below sea level evaporated over the years, leaving increasing levels of salt behind. The result has been an environmental disaster for birds, fish, and humans alike, as the shrinking Salton Sea has transformed into a salty dust bowl.

But it wasn’t just farms in California that needed water to grow in the early 1900s; cities did too, especially fast-expanding Los Angeles. With water supply from its eponymous river woefully inadequate to sustain L.A.’s unprecedented growth, planners in Southern California sought to harness water from far-flung places for their ever-growing desert cityscapes. In 1922, California was one of seven states to enter the Colorado River Compact, an agreement to provide for the “equitable division and apportionment” of the use of waters from the Colorado River system, allowing California to stake a greater claim to the Colorado.

Eventually, Southern California secured its supply of Colorado River water with the construction of Parker Dam on the California-Arizona border. Completed in 1938, the dam created Lake Havasu, from which water would be pumped through the new Colorado River Aqueduct running west across the Mojave Desert to the east side of the Santa Ana Mountains, supplying almost all cities in the greater Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego areas. To this day, it is one of the primary sources of drinking water for Southern California.

By this time, a dam construction boom was well under way in the United States, with new federally funded projects designed not only for human consumption and irrigation purposes but also for generating electricity. The biggest, of course, was the Boulder Dam, later renamed Hoover Dam, built on the border between Nevada and Arizona, upstream from Lake Havasu. Completed in 1936, Hoover Dam became both the highest and largest dam in the world, and once online it earned the title of the world’s largest hydroelectric facility.

For decades, building dams represented progress. Few, if any, considerations were given to things like fish. But by the 1950s, a chorus of voices had begun warning about the environmental consequences of the dam boom.

One project that came under particularly heavy criticism was the building of a huge dam at Glen Canyon near the town of
Page in northern Arizona. Initial plans to build the dam in the 1920s had been scrapped, only to be resurrected some 30 years later. Critics questioned the dam’s economic justifications, as well as the environmental damage caused by building a dam across a gorge lined with sandstone, which would flood the scenic Glen Canyon and threaten the integrity of the Grand Canyon just downstream.

Still, the project went ahead, and in 1963 Glen Canyon Dam stood 583 feet above the Colorado River, the second largest dam in the U.S. after Hoover, and with a newly plugged Lake Powell next to it. By then, all resemblance to the historic Colorado River had long since faded, with every drop of water litigated and allocated. In time, the mighty river that had once carved out America’s most iconic landscape would no longer reach the sea.

Golden-colored fish swimming in clear blue water
Dan Gold

The Best Fish

Of all the major rivers in North America, the Colorado has always had the lowest diversity of native fish, particularly in the lower part of the basin (below the Glen Canyon Dam). Still, few others have seen their native fish fauna so severely decimated. Only eight fish species have evolved in the lower basin, and those belong to only two families: minnows and suckers, both of the Cypriniformes order. (In comparison, there are almost 300 native fish species in the Mississippi River.)
At the same time, the Colorado River has the highest level of fish endemism of any river system in North America, with six of the lower basin’s eight native species found in no other river in the world.

Why is that? A lot of it likely has to do with the geographic isolation of the Colorado system, and also the harsh environmental conditions that existed before the river was transformed by humans. For sunfish, catfish, and other fish that evolved outside the basin, the Colorado’s turbid and unpredictable waters, running through muscular mountains and scorching deserts, were too much to handle.

Drought no doubt played a key role in the evolutionary adaptations of fish in the Colorado. The late Wendell L. Minckley, an ichthyologist at Arizona State University who had five fish species named after him, speculated that seasonal low flows, amplified by drought, caused fish to retreat from broader river channels into deeper and more secure canyon reaches. Stuck in those spaces, some species would be eaten by others, and generally only a few larger fish would survive.

One such survivor is the Colorado pikeminnow, which is believed to have evolved more than three million years ago. It is the only large fish found in the Colorado River system that, historically, reached lengths of up to six feet, and thus qualifies as a “megafish,” though this beautiful fish, with its long, streamlined body of olivegreen hue, no longer grows this big, nor can it be found anymore in the
Lower Colorado River basin.

With its big fins, small eyes, and a large mouth that, despite it being a voracious carnivore, lacks what we normally call teeth, the Colorado pikeminnow is the largest of four pikeminnow species and is known for long-distance spawning migrations of more than 200 miles in late spring and early summer.

Like some other native Colorado fishes, such as the razorback sucker and bonytail, Colorado pikeminnows can live almost 50 years and produce tens of thousands of eggs each spawning season. This has allowed the pikeminnows to survive through prolonged periods of drought when spawning may have been impossible. Once favorable conditions return, they can repopulate the river in a single season, in contrast to many other freshwater fish that live fewer than 10 years and can produce only a few hundred offspring each year.

But the story of the Colorado pikeminnow is, like that of many other giant fish, ultimately one of decline. Naturally, this has occurred at the hands of humans, and we’ve managed to cause this in a trifecta of progressive harm.

From the time humans first arrived at the Colorado River, they likely targeted the pikeminnow for food. Native American fishing practices throughout time have been well documented. One nomadic people, the Chemehuevie, who populated Southern Nevada and western Arizona, called the Colorado pikeminnow Ah´chee Ah´had, or simply “the best fish.”

The Colorado pikeminnow was also a valued food source among early white settlers, who alternatively called it “squawfish” — a name commonly used until very recently, despite its blatantly derogatory basis — and “Colorado white salmon,” a reference to the pikeminnow’s migratory behavior. There are plenty of stories of pikeminnows weighing up to 100 pounds, with settler journals describing catches producing “quite a few meals for the family.”

Historical accounts from the turn of the 20th century tell of farmers diverting the river’s water into their orchards and, after the water dried up, hundreds of pikeminnow being scattered across the fields, from where they were pitchforked out and used as fertilizer. Still, the pikeminnow remained the Colorado River’s top predator in the early 1900s, and they were a popular target fish for anglers, known to take bait in the form of mice, birds, and even small rabbits, despite their “teeth” being found only on a bony circular structure located deep within their throats.

But people also wanted to fish other species, for both food and recreation, and this brings us to the second way we have caused the decline of the pikeminnow: by introducing nonnative fish species into the Colorado River.

Non-native species that take root in new ecosystems and, in many cases, cause trouble are known as invasive organisms. Worldwide, and throughout history, there is said to have been more than 8,000 introductions of fish species into river basins outside their native range, making freshwater fish among the most introduced animals in the world.

Stocking of nonnative fish in the Colorado probably began as early as1881, while the countryside was still being settled. By 1910, common carp, bullhead, and channel catfish were prevalent throughout the lower river. The new arrivals increased the competition for food among all aquatic inhabitants. But even as food themselves, the catfishes caused great harm to the pikeminnows that preyed on them. The pikeminnows would get their prey’s barbels stuck in their throat when they tried to swallow the catfish, causing them to suffocate and die.

Even so, the pikeminnow might have survived these first two threats had it not been for the third and most destructive way we have caused the decline of the species: by building dams. In the Colorado River system, the dams proved disastrous for the migratory pikeminnow; neither the reservoirs behind the dams nor the cold, clear water flowing from them provided suitable habitat for a species that had evolved in wildly different and more extreme environments.

The last Colorado pikeminnow below Glen Canyon Dam was recorded in 1975. The following year, the species became federally protected and listed as endangered. Efforts to reintroduce the pikeminnow to the lower basin, using brood stock from the former Dexter National Fish Hatchery and Technology Center in New Mexico, failed because the fish would not reproduce, and eventually the efforts were abandoned. It left the Lower Colorado with the dubious distinction of being among the few major rivers in the world with an almost entirely introduced fish fauna.

A man in a boat pulls a fish out of the Colorado River
Backstage Library Works
UNLV Libraries

The Dam’s End

Because it’s hard to find a river as exploited by humans as the Colorado, it may come as a surprise to some that it is also considered the birthplace of modern U.S. environmentalism. Water in the American West played an important role in the early goings-on of the country’s 20th-century conservation movement.

When the seven basin states signed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 to codify the division of water rights for agriculture and economic development, the agreement included no environmental protections. It also excluded from negotiations the many Indigenous People living along the Colorado including the Mojave, known as the “river keepers” who, in addition to practicing floodplain and irrigation agriculture, had been environmental stewards of the river for some 4,000 years. Even during the dam-building boom on the Colorado and elsewhere, very little attention was given to the potential impact that dams would have on the river’s ecology and on fish.

But after World War II, things began to change. In a booming postwar economy, people could afford cars, which they drove to visit natural places. More people began to recognize the costs of environmental negligence, including air and water pollution. In A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, Aldo Leopold, whom some would call the father of wildlife conservation in the United States, wrote that maintaining the “beauty, integrity, and health of natural systems” is a moral and ethical imperative.

Many people who described themselves as conservationists began to move toward political action, and increasingly their energies became focused on river protection. A particular target of their ire emerged in the 1950s: the Colorado River Storage Project, a proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to build a series of new dams in the Colorado River basin. A central feature of this project was going to be a 529-foot-high gravity dam on the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado, to be built in an area known as Echo Park located inside Dinosaur National Monument, which spans the border between Utah and Colorado.

The Echo Park Dam would have flooded a scenic canyon flanked by enormous sandstone cliffs, as well as much of the Green and Yampa River valleys inside the national monument. Conservationists warned of devastating ecological consequences. But the Dinosaur National Monument was a remote part of the national park system that few people had visited, and some wondered why the area was deemed so valuable, especially since the dinosaur fossils that had been excavated there were not in danger of being flooded.

So conservationists set out to build public support for their case, and did so by enlisting the help of influential people such as Bernard DeVoto, a conservation writer who wrote an essay in the Saturday Evening Post called “Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?” Soon, coverage of the controversy popped up in major newspapers across the country.

Meanwhile, David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, made two films about Dinosaur National Monument and arranged for one of them to be screened frequently in the halls of the U.S. Congress. At a congressional hearing in early 1954, Brower also boosted the conservationists’ case when he showed how the dam engineers had made serious errors in their projections.

Following years of debate, the plans for Echo Park Dam were scrapped, with legislation signed by President Dwight Eisenhower paving the way for a campaign to establish a national wilderness preservation system. The conservation victory proved to be an important milestone in American environmental history, and many experts date the origins and emergence of a coherent “environmental movement” to the battle against the Echo Park Dam.

As dam building peaked in the 1960s, rivers and fish became a cornerstone of the environmental movement that emerged as a cultural and political force at the time. Of the 75 species listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, 22 were fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow. Coincidentally, in 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed Native Americans’ rights to Colorado River water and specified the allotments of tribes living adjacent to the river in southern basin states (although much of their allocation has gone unused because of insufficient funding and infrastructure). Then, in 1968, Congress established the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to protect sections of free-flowing rivers that “possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values.”

In the intervening 55 years, 209 rivers in the United States have been afforded this designation. But not the Colorado. Instead, a tug-of-war over water rights has continued along America’s most iconic river. Since 2000, annual flows in the Colorado River have averaged 20 percent below what they were in the century before, because of drought and climate change. Water in Lake Mead and the basin’s other artificial lakes dropped to such precipitously low levels last year that the federal government declared a first-ever official water shortage. There is reason to believe this will be the new norm.

The jagged banks of the Colorado River
Backstage Library Works
UNLV Libraries

Milk and Honey Wilderness

Today, we look at the dams on the Colorado River as permanent, almost natural features of the landscape. It is difficult to envision the river without them. The way the Colorado, and any river, behaves with the dams on it is, in a way, more real to us than what it would have been without them. We cannot envision the river in its natural state. No living person has seen the Colorado River fully wild.

It is easy to imagine that people who were there when the dams on the Colorado and other American rivers were built also viewed them as permanent features of the landscape. The dams were seen as engineering marvels, indestructible, and meant to last in perpetuity. We know that little thought was given to the impact of dams on fish and the ecological functions of the river; the public was instead transfixed on the economic and technological progress that dams represented.

By 1940, hydropower provided 40 percent of America’s electricity supply, and over the next couple of decades dams continued to be built at a rapid pace in the United States. But things changed as oil and natural gas production became cheaper, surpassing coal as the leading energy source, while new forms of energy also emerged, including nuclear power. By the 1960s the hydropower boom was ebbing, in part because many of the rivers suitable for exploitation had been dammed by then.

It had also become obvious that hydropower plants were, in fact, not indestructible, but would eventually run into problems requiring costly rehabilitation. Reservoirs silt up, resulting in diminished energy outputs, and infrastructure needs to be repaired to avoid potential catastrophes. The environmental damage that dams inevitably caused was often greater than initially acknowledged. The cost of upgrading their safety systems or keeping outdated hydroelectric equipment running decades after a dam had been installed was, in some cases, not worth it. And so, by the 1980s, an idea began to spread that perhaps some dams should be removed.

Since then, the U.S. has led the world in dam removal. No new large hydropower dams have been constructed in this country for decades, and many dams considered obsolete have been taken out, including two large ones that were removed on the Elwha River in Washington State beginning in 2011.

Observers have learned that, once dams are taken out, the rivers often bounce back to their natural state more quickly than expected. Ecological rewards can be almost instantaneous, with migrating fish populations returning to their native habitats in very little time. Assisted by the same human hand that once altered it, nature is capable of rapidly and naturally regenerating what was once believed to have been permanently lost.

Recently, amid the Colorado water crisis, a longstanding campaign to drain Lake Powell by removing Glen Canyon Dam has gained some momentum. The idea is to store that water in Lake Mead instead. Taking out a structure that is a key component of one of the most complex river resource developments in the world may seem unrealistic to most people. But there is no harm done in imagining how the river would respond to such an undertaking. Perhaps it could be brought back to some semblance of its former majesty?

After all, people have shown it is possible, if only temporarily. We did it on March 23, 2014. On that day, the gates of Morelos Dam, on the U.S.-Mexico border, were opened to release a “pulse flow” of water into the final, parched stretches of the Colorado River, an engineered discharge that culminated from years of negotiations between the United States and Mexico.

By taking 105,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mead and sending it south, we mimicked, on a small scale, the spring floods that historically inundated the Colorado River delta, in the hopes of restoring some of the natural bounty once found there. As the water made its way across the salt-crusted sand plains, the place that Aldo Leopold, after a canoe trip in 1922, called a “milk and honey wilderness” once again sprang to life. Children who had never seen the river bathed in it, as the skies above filled with hawks, egrets, and ospreys.

Then, nearly eight weeks after the release, the river finally, and briefly, reunited with the sea, and in that fleeting moment, the Colorado River was once again complete. If you closed your eyes, you could envision the fish returning — the humpback chub, the bonytail, and the largest pikeminnows that anyone has ever seen.