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Of course it’s a virtual river

Essay by Ed Quillen

Water – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

ONE ITEM in my pile of looming work was a short article about plans to enhance the Arkansas River corridor through Salida. Another was a book to review (Virtual Rivers: Lessons from the Mountain Rivers of the Colorado Front Range, by Ellen E. Wohl, published in 2001 by Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-08484-6).

Whenever I started working on one, I found myself thinking about the other, and the more I worked, the more I realized that I couldn’t contrive a way to write separate pieces. Both the review and the short article address the same underlying topic: How “natural” can any river really be in our somewhat developed desert?

In her introduction to Virtual Rivers, Wohl explains that “When I moved to Colorado in 1989, I was impressed by the sparkling water of the mountain rivers, and I too assumed that these were natural, fully functional rivers. It was only after I began to read historical accounts of the Colorado Front Range and to examine the streams more closely that I realized how dramatically they had been altered. I began to think of them as virtual rivers, which had the appearance of natural rivers but had lost much of a natural river’s ecosystem functions.”

Wohl focuses on the South Platte and its mountain tributaries, from the various forks in South Park north to the Cache La Poudre’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, and along the way, she pays considerable attention to Clear Creek (the one that flows through Idaho Springs, not our Clear Creek of Vicksburg and Winfield).

The Arkansas River gets mentioned only in passing, but much of what she writes about the South Platte would apply since its history and topography are so similar. After white folks arrived in the early 19th century, both basins were trapped, almost to exhaustion, for beaver.

Remove the beaver, and their dams disappear for lack of maintenance. Creeks rush down little ravines, rather than stair-stepping from pond to pond. The stream carries more sediment, fish adapt to the changed aquatic conditions, and so forth.

Then come the miners in 1859, digging up streambeds for placer deposits, diverting streams for more water for their sluice-boxes, chewing up nearby hillsides with immense hydraulic jets of water (remember the scenes in the movie Pale Rider?), digesting entire valleys with bucket dredges (the expanse of cobbles outside Fairplay or near Balltown).

That was just the placer miners. The lode miners, with their shafts and tunnels, devoured whole forests for props and lagging. Their early smelters burned charcoal from the forests. Deforested hillsides alter their rivers in substantial ways.

The railroads that served the mining industry generally ran along the streams and narrowed their beds. Mineralized water from the mines and their dumps seeped into the streams, changing their chemistry.

Downstream farms, cities, and industries needed a reliable water supply — thus reservoirs, canals, diversions from the wetter Western Slope.

All this is explained, with pictures and ample documentation, in Virtual Rivers. But at its heart is an assumption, one that deserves more examination than it gets. It’s the same assumption that underlies the proposals for Salida’s river corridor, and an assumption that informs many contemporary environmental issues, like reserved stream flows through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

THE ASSUMPTION is that once upon a time, say about two centuries ago before white folks arrived, our rivers functioned properly in some arcadian “balance of nature.” Now that we are wise and enlightened, unlike those greedy and destructive trappers and miners and farmers, we can discover that harmonious pre-settlement condition, and we can restore it, so that all will be well in the future.

So what were our rivers like before the trappers and miners arrived?

Maybe that isn’t the right question. The Utes hunted and fished, and warred against invaders like the Arapahoe of the Great Plains, who ventured into the mountains to hunt and cut lodgepole pines for tepee poles. The Utes were known to set forest fires to drive out game, which simplified hunting. There is arch√¶ological evidence near Monarch Pass of a place where game was driven off a cliff, and flint quarries have been found near Rabbit Ears Pass.

In other words, the Indians were not passive stewards of nature, and we dehumanize them if we look at them that way. They exploited their world to the extent that their neolithic technology permitted, and when new “technology” appeared (the horse, the iron fire-striker, the wool blanket, gunpowder), they availed themselves of it.

As I see it, if they didn’t take up hydraulic mining or clear-cutting, it was because they didn’t have much use for gold or charcoal, not because they were more environmentally aware than those who came afterward. If they trod lightly on the land, it was because they were nomadic and didn’t stay in one place for long.

So by the time that white folks came along, the mountain rivers were already “virtual rivers” — rivers that looked “natural” (as in “untouched by human activities”) but really weren’t.

Thus the Arkansas may not have been a pristinely clear and sparking stream during the Shining Times: the Spanish called it the Rio Napestle, a word that some scholars derive from apestoso, which means “stinking.”

That said, what else did the Spanish find? The first written account of the Arkansas near Salida comes from Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1779 expedition.

On Aug. 28, they arose from their camp at the present site of the town of Poncha Springs, and “Just before seven o’clock we set out on the road toward the northeast, and after a little more than a league [a Spanish league was about three miles] we crossed to the Rio de Napestle which comes in from the northwest. It has its rise in the sierra which as already said runs in this direction. After finishing another league we began to cross another medium sized sierra, which occupied two more leagues….”

I TAKE THIS to mean that he forded the river in the general vicinity of modern Salida, then rode upstream for a couple of miles before turning east into the Arkansas Hills. Anza was no whiner, but he did note difficulties and obstacles elsewhere (such as Poncha Pass, which included “a very narrow canyon with almost inaccessible sides … [which] cost us considerable work to conquer.”)

Thus he likely would have noted if the Arkansas had been deep and swift and difficult to ford. He didn’t note any such thing, and when we consider that it was late August when mountain rivers are low anyway — and it was scores of years before the river’s flow had been stabilized and augmented with reservoirs and diversions — it makes sense that the Arkansas at Salida was not what you see under the F Street Bridge.

I’d guess that Anza’s Napestle was not a swift stream bounded by steep banks; instead, its banks were gentle and the water was languid. It was so easy to ford that he felt no need to comment on it.

One reason he kept a journal, after all, was to assist future Spanish entradas into this territory. If he had been forced to search for a place where 2,400 horses could get across the river safely, a responsible commander like Anza would certainly have noted it. And he didn’t.

My surmise about Anza’s Napestle is confirmed by Zebulon Pike’s Arkansaw River. There’s a roadside historical marker on U.S. 285 a few miles north of Poncha Springs, near the spot where Pike camped on Christmas Day, 1806.

His journal recounts that on the next day, they “Marched at two o’clock and made 7¬Ĺ miles to the entrance of the mountains.” That would be where the canyon closes in a couple of miles downstream from Salida.

Pike observed that “on this piece of prairie the river spreads considerably, and forms several small islands; a large stream [South Arkansas] enters from the south.”

Salida sits on Pike’s “piece of prairie,” and Pike described a shallow, wide, braided river dotted by islands — something like the North Platte in Nebraska. And again, that’s nothing like the narrow, swift river under the F Street bridge.

Anza and Pike offer us descriptions of the “natural” Arkansas near Salida — the river that some people say should be “restored.”

BUT IF I LEARNED anything from reading Virtual Rivers, it’s that a river is more like a biological organism than like a mere geographical feature.

A river has a chemistry of pH levels and metallic ions, along with a density of solids it is transporting. It has a flow regime of peak and slack flows punctuated by droughts and cataclysmic 500-year floods. Beyond quality and quantity, a river has a riparian zone of plants and wildlife, and it has a biology of insects and fish.

And that’s just a scientific way of looking at a river. For a full view, we need to add economics with diversions and storage and hydro-electric generation in the “Old West” and fishing and floating in the “New West.” We bring culture with Huckleberry Finn and Bob Dylan “sittin’ on this bank of sand and watchin’ the river go by.”

All this applies to the Arkansas as it flows through Salida. The rafting industry may promote it as “the free-flowing Arkansas River,” since there aren’t any main-stem dams in the 150 miles above Pueblo Reservoir. But the major tributaries have reservoirs (Turquoise, Twin Lakes, Clear Creek, Cottonwood, North Fork, etc.), and the annual flows are augmented by 137,000 acre-feet from the Western Slope.

Just when that extra water should flow has been a matter of contention — we called it “Row vs. Wade” a decade ago. The floaters wanted higher late-summer flows to extend the rafting season, while anglers said it would damage the fishery because brown trout thrive better with slow, low water then.

They reached a compromise, but we should note that the brown trout themselves are not native — they were imported to improve the sport fishing in the Arkansas after the native cut-throats were either fished out, or died from the pollution that flowed down from the mines and smelters of Leadville.

WHAT IS GOOD For the trout isn’t necessarily good for the rest of the river. Old-timers have told me (and a Division of Wildlife biologist confirmed this) that the brown trout fared better before Salida started treating its sewage 50 years ago. That is, brown trout find untreated sewage nutritious and delicious, even if certain other river users find it disgusting and unhealthy.

As for the Arkansas’s course through Salida, it’s obvious that much has changed since Pike. On the north side, the railroad expanded its yards by dumping thousands of cubic yards of fill. Many property owners on the south side did the same thing — their deeds run to the center line of the channel, and the more fill they could dump, the more effective use they got from their property.

All that fill constricted the channel, making a swift narrow stream where there had been a broad, shallow stream. Salida sits next to the river, but you really don’t see the river because it runs well below street level in a small chasm.

Consequently, in the view of Michael Harvey, executive director of the Arkansas River Trust, “Salida has turned its back on the river,” and he points to the yard-high concrete wall on the river side of Riverside Park as a symbol of this attitude, since “It separates Salida from the river.”

Immediately I dropped whatever journalistic impartiality I had, and started arguing with him about that little barrier wall.

When my daughters were little, and we were in Riverside Park, I was glad of that barrier between the park and the river. The wall would catch a loose ball, so that kids didn’t have to go near the torrent. It was a convenient demarcation — you could tell them to stay on the park side, away from the dangerous river that could sweep them away and drown them.

CERTAINLY MY BIASES are reflected there — although I’ve taken a few float trips, I’m not into water sports. I might enjoy looking at the river, but that’s about as close as I want to get to this dangerous, devouring beast. I can barely backfloat, let alone swim in a current. Any stream that I can’t just step across is a threat to my life, and the Arkansas, especially at high flows in June, was certainly something to protect my children from.

But Harvey pointed out that other cities have removed the barriers and terraced the banks to a less steep contour, thereby making the stream more accessible — and there hasn’t been an epidemic of drowned children in Durango, Grand Junction, Boulder, Golden, or other places with river parks.

Fair enough. Besides, he said “I’m not ready to start that fight yet,” and if he doesn’t want that fight, I certainly don’t, either.

But I’ll still quarrel with his assessment that Salida has turned its back on the river. Salida never really faced it in the first place. Salida was a railroad town, not a river town. Salida’s arrivals and departures, the freight it imported and exported, happened on the rails, not on barges and boats that docked at Salida piers.

Salida didn’t face the river. It faced the depot at the end of its main street — that the river ran in front of the depot was mere happenstance.

But Salida never seems to have ignored the river. After all, the oldest and longest downriver race in North America starts in Salida. When I moved here in 1978, people told me that Salida was a wonderful place because you could just walk downtown and toss a line in the water, with a fair chance of landing an edible brown trout. Other residents talked of how much they enjoyed kayaking and rafting in the river — a river that was getting cleaner every year, thanks to environmental laws.

So, no, I can’t see that Salida “turned its back” on the river. But the river wasn’t the focus of the community, either.

That may change, if the Arkansas River Trust succeeds in an ambitious project.

The Trust, which was formed in 1999, is a non-profit corporation headquartered in Salida, committed to “maximizing the ecological health of the Arkansas River, enhancing and creating open space and parks along the Arkansas River corridor, and promoting youth participation in whitewater paddle sports.”

Those are commendable goals, and the Trust has taken some steps. North of the F Street Bridge, near where the railroad bridge crossed the river before it was removed in 1985, the rocks have been arranged to form a “play hole” for boaters, and it’s already a popular spot. A tree that was in imminent danger of toppling was removed.

Several nearby property owners on that bank are terracing their backyards, to give an idea of what could be done on the other bank — all owned by the railroad, which could simplify the creation of a pleasant river trail and park.

THE ARGUMENTS for such parks (in the stream and out) have varied from political ecology (the more that people interact with the water in the river, the more they want it to be clean) to straight economic (Golden’s river park is an asset that produces $4.3 million a year in increased local spending).

Public support is evident. The city government has committed $48,000, the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District has donated $5,000, High Country Bank is a major donor — and if I had the money, I’d probably contribute, too, because I like trails and parks, and they make this a better place to live.

But is there anything “natural” about the result, or would we still be looking at a “virtual” river?

To put this another way, our geographic forebears saw the Arkansas River as a convenient industrial sewer, a good way to get rid of smelter slag and placer detritus. It had carved some canyons that could be used for railroad routes through rugged mountains. The river provided water that could be diverted to beneficial use, irrigating hayfields and lawns. And they attempted to manage the river accordingly.

Today, millions of dollars have been spent re-arranging mine dumps and mill tailings near Leadville to reduce water pollution, and there’s a treatment plant for mineralized water. Instead of adjusting the river’s bed for the railroads, we put rocks and holes in the river to enhance its recreational potential, and we control and augment the river’s flow for the benefit of the fishery, the floaters, and the downstream irrigators.

IN OTHER WORDS, we’re still managing the river for our own benefit. We don’t just “let it flow,” and we can’t. Try to imagine removing all the diversions to and from the upper 150 miles of the Arkansas, then determining where the banks were when Pike or Anza saw them and arranging the dirt and rocks accordingly, then establishing the chemistry and biology of the water before mining commenced — you’re imagining one of the largest and most expensive public-works projects in history, and one that would be aimed toward an unknowable goal of a “natural river.”

And what if that “natural river” braided its way right through Salida and across Highway 50? If it meant sacrificing our own homes and businesses, would we be eager to return the Arkansas to its natural state?

Human habitations come and go over the course of time (as a trip to Mesa Verde makes clear), and perhaps a millennium hence, when this unstable area is abandoned after the Great Rio Grande Rift Earthquake of 2117, the Arkansas might become a “natural river.”

But in the meantime, we’ll be managing it. There’s nothing immoral about that — we’re humans, and it’s our nature to adapt our environment toward what we think will benefit us, just as it is our nature to argue about who should benefit and who should pay.

But I do think there’s something wrong with refusing to admit that. Why can’t we just say that our priorities and technologies are different than those of the Utes of 1800 or the miners and railroaders of 1880, and that we will manage the river (or perhaps our “virtual river”) accordingly?

After all, what’s nature got to do with mill tailings and railroad beds, or with bike trails, play holes and imported trout? Just like those who came before us, we’re trying to create a river that serves our needs and desires.

— Ed Quillen