The San Juan: A region’s lifeblood

Early this spring I sat up late reading a book entitled “River Flowing from the Sunrise,” by James Aton and Robert McPherson. Sometime around midnight I stepped outside and within 10 seconds I was drenched in a wet, heavy snow; it landed on my eyelids, my lashes, and the pale yellow lights of the Mission cast their rays among the flakes, producing an hallucinogenic, floating radiation of cold light. In the morning the entire Mission was drenched in white, the red bluffs and the canyons, too, in a miraculous soft blanket, the first snow of the long winter season, a season that hadn’t yielded enough moisture to fill a demitasse.

I was scheduled to go on a river trip with Wild Rivers Expeditions, the oldest commercial company on the San Juan River, and when I arrived at their headquarters I learned that the “peeps” (the customers, a group of students from Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs) were stranded on the wrong side of Wolf Creek Pass. Officials were measuring snowfall in feet up there in the higher passes of the Southern San Juan Mountains; indeed the entire San Juans, the La Sals, the Chuskas and the Abajos, were all inundated with a blanket of white.

Much of that snow will eventually come, as brown sedimentladen water, past our door here in Bluff — at least that which is left after agricultural and other needs are met upstream. The river downstream from Bluff to the Glen Canyon Dam serves but one principal human purpose: recreation. The natural requirements of the river are myriad, diverse, and many thousands of years older than the first humans.

The great blue herons, with their broad span of graceful wings, wind their way up and down the canyons. Ducks, geese, canyon wrens, peregrine falcons, bighorn sheep, beaver, otters, willows, cottonwoods, Indian rice grass, globe mallow, squawfish and silvery minnows, a harmonic medley of inextricably related flora and fauna, depend on the San Juan for their existence.

A boater leaving Sand Island and floating the San Juan to Clay Hills Crossing 83 miles downstream will encounter many of the types of wildlife that call the San Juan home.

The San Juan basin drains 25,000 square miles of mountain and desert, some of the harshest, most beautiful country in North America. The distance from its headwaters in Colorado to Lake Powell is 350 miles.

The earliest river-runners on the San Juan were Bert Loper and Norm Nevells, regarded as pioneers by modern- day boatmen. Kenny Ross, founder of Wild Rivers Expeditions, ran the San Juan River for more than 50 years.

It is a new century, a time for new blood, new energy and a new vision of commercial river-running: Now the company is owned by Jay and Kelly Carson, Taylor and Kristen McKinnon, young folks out of Flagstaff, Ariz.

About 13,000 people float the San Juan each year (of those, half are private, the other half commercial). Private boaters obtain permits from the BLM in Monticello, Utah, on a lottery basis; commercial companies are allotted so many launches a year.

A decade ago, Sand Island campground was one of the best-kept secrets in the Four Corners. You could camp for a night, or a week, and chances are no one would notice. There were no fees, or toilet paper either — a small price to pay for freedom — and no volunteers in uniforms to come over with clipboards and pencils to ask you how you are doing.

The government manages all aspects of the river, or tries to. It measures stream flows, fish numbers and movements, makes sure campground assignments are adhered to and campgrounds are left clean.

In order for the river to support the number of recreationists who use it, it must be managed. Still, old Ed Abbey turns in his grave, disturbing the work of the worms.

A short San Juan primer

In a desert land of sand, wind, rock, and heat, a river is a precious thing. Imagine Bluff under water, from cliff to cliff. It was, back in ancient times, during the Pleistocene — more than a mile wide. The San Juan was a vastly different river then. It still flowed out of the southern San Juan Mountains in Colorado, fed by the Piedra, the Blanco, and the Navajo; down into New Mexico, where it was and is joined by the Animas and La Plata, through Farmington and Shiprock, up through the Four Corners, where the Mancos River joins the orchestra. Then it turns northwest, its northernmost point near Bluff, and then southwest and west until it becomes the San Juan arm of Lake Powell just below Clay Hills, where river-runners take out.

There it resembles nothing of the vibrant San Juan of a mere 50 years ago. Now, the river at Clay Hills reminds us of Bogie and Hepburn, arduously poling the African Queen along that sluggish stretch of the Ulonga-Bora River.

An ancient people, about whom we have only the vaguest notions, hunted mastodons along the banks of the San Juan; there were camels, and greatwinged birds, and the world along its course was a very different world than the one we see from the comforts of our floating Hypolon vessels, replete with stoves, toilets, coolers (full of beer, we hope), water containers, modish river sandals, sarongs, umbrellas, and orange life jackets.

The first human habitation of the San Juan country began about 14,000 years ago. The world was a wetter, cooler place; the flora and fauna were different; the San Juan country was verdant, abundant.

One Clovis site was found on Lime Ridge, where early hunters killed mastodons, gigantic (10 feet tall) precursors to the modern elephant.

Sitting atop Lime Ridge, I try to imagine what it must have been like, the hunters watching the big animals lumbering along Comb Wash. There were no high-powered rifles with scopes, where the hunter could sit off 200 yards and shoot. No, Clovis hunting was up close and personal, close enough to smell the animals and feel their hot breath, the great curled tusks, the enormous tramping feet.

Evidence, albeit sparse, of Archaic occupation (6500 B.C to 1 A.D.) has been discovered in the San Juan basin. These hunter-gatherers probably followed a routine, closely attuned to the seasons, of living off the flora and fauna provided them.

The Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi, as they are popularly known) were the first humans to establish permanent communities in San Juan country. Numerous testaments to their habitation, as exhibited in surface sites, can still be found. The most noted of all these are the cliff dwellings, the most dramatic of which can be found at Mesa Verde. Many less-dramatic cliff dwellings can be found throughout southeastern Utah.

The Anasazi were farmers, probably the most successful (judging by the many food-storage sites they left behind) of any group that has ever lived along the San Juan. At the pinnacle of their existence they were a prosperous people. In 1000 A.D. there were many more people living in southeastern Utah than there are today.

The archaeologists tell us that the Anasazi were gone by about 1300 A.D. Did other tribes move in and drive them out? Or were they driven out by climate changes? No one is certain.

As the Anasazi removed themselves from San Juan country, Navajo (Diné), Paiute, and Ute people moved in. The largest of these groups was the Navajo. They made their homes along the south bank of the San Juan, with Ute and Paiute to the north.

For all of its meandering, the San Juan weaves approximately the same route for thousands of years; people’s relationship to it, from Paiute to Mormon, has been less precise.

An untamed menace

In 1859 the U.S. government sent a scientific expedition to study the San Juan Basin. Soon geologists such as John Newberry began to discover its importance. Richard, John and Al Wetherill penetrated the area in search of archaeological sites. Scientific exploration of the San Juan Basin put it on the world map.

Bert Loper signed on as head boatman for the Trimble Expedition, which surveyed the San Juan from Bluff to Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado.

The first permanent Anglo-American settlement of the San Juan country came in the form of the Mormon pioneers. After enduring incredible hardships, the Hole-in-the-Rock group stumbled into Bluff in 1880.

The Mormon, Gentiles and Indians competed for rangeland. There was squabbling about land use; the Mormons felt that the Navajos should stay on their reservation south of the river, while the Navajos believed they should have use of their traditional grazing grounds north of it.

Here we see the river not only as an essential resource but as a boundary. To many it was a menace, untamed and unmanageable. Mormon attempts to farm by using the river water in irrigation ditches eventually failed. Seasonal fluctuations in the river wiped the sandy ditches out in spring and left them dry in the critical months of July, August and September. The Mormons eventually abandoned the San Juan and moved to the high country, where present-day Blanding is located.

Today, below Bluff, the San Juan River forms the northern boundary of the Navajo Reservation. The BLM manages the river, its uses and permits. Although the Navajo Nation also issues permits for the San Juan, this process is not enforced and many boaters, both private and commercial, continue to camp along the reservation shores, sans Navajo Nation permits. Over the years there has been a fair amount of dissension between boaters and Navajos downstream from Bluff.

A bleak future?

The Federal Water Powers Act of 1920 signaled the end of the San Juan as a free-flowing river, as it paved the way for the construction of Navajo and Glen Canyon dams, the former in New Mexico, the latter at Page, Ariz. Glen Canyon and Navajo dams serve several purposes: hydroelectric power generation (Glen Canyon), sediment control, flood control, irrigation, and recreation.

At one point proponents planned a dam below Bluff, near the mouth of Chinle Wash. Had they built it, Bluff would be under water today.

There are agricultural demands along the river south of Navajo Reservoir to Bluff. But between Sand Island and Clay Hills there is no farming, thus no irrigation. The water taken out of the San Juan is taken out above Bluff.

Below Grand Gulch, where much of the river’s sediment is deposited, the river becomes braided, and boaters often must push, pull, and drag their boats along the sandy bottom.

The question of sustainability of the San Juan Basin is critical. As you travel through northern Arizona and come upon the small Navajo community at Cameron, you may see a sign marking the passage of the Little Colorado, once an important stream cutting through the vast desert country. You will notice no water in it. It is dead. And much has died with it.

I asked Doug Ross, veteran river guide and son of the late Kenny Ross, what he thought of the San Juan’s future, considering increased water demands and the ever-tightening drought cycle. “Bleak,” he said.

Multiple demands

In the last decade of the 20th Century it appeared that efforts to build the Animas-La Plata project south of Durango had been defeated, but as a last act President William Clinton signed legislation providing the funds to build it. This project will satisfy Ute demands for water promised them by treaty; it will provide for expansion of Durango southward; it will also take water out of the San Juan.

The Navajo Nation is negotiating with the city of Gallup, N.M., to sell part of the tribe’s water rights. Gallup and Farmington are the two fastestgrowing cities in New Mexico.

In 2003, during the historic drought that gripped much of the West, the water level in Navajo Reservoir sank lower than it had been when the reservoir was first filled. Releases from Navajo Dam had to be slashed — bad news for the trout fishery below the lake. But fish are a minor concern relative to many other water uses.

Two major drains on the San Juan River are the 1,800-megawatt San Juan Generating Station and the 2,040- megawatt Four Corners Power Plant, both of which use water for cooling.

In 2003 the San Juan Generating Station cut back its water use from 24,200 acre-feet to 22,000 acre-feet. The Four Corners Power Plant uses 15,000 to 20,000 acre-feet a year. In an extreme drought, officials say, there might not be enough water for the plants to operate unless other waterusers cut back severely.

New Mexico’s explosive growth is sucking water from the San Juan as well. Under an interstate agreement, the state is entitled to a portion of the flow of the upper Colorado River because the San Juan, a tributary of the Colorado, runs through New Mexico. Under the San Juan-Chama Project, up to 110,000 acre-feet of San Juan water is diverted from upper tributaries of the river into the Rio Grande basin, transported via tunnels gouged through the Continental Divide. The water flows to the city of Albuquerque, to the city and county of Santa Fe, to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District for irrigation, and to numerous other smaller entities.

Settling Navajo claims

Then there is the massive Navajo Water Rights Settlement to be considered. Passed by the Navajo Nation Council in December 2004, the settlement agreement would grant eventual control to the Navajo Nation of 56 percent of the San Juan Basin’s diverted water supply, a total of 606,040 acrefeet annually.

The settlement agreement, prompted by a 1975 lawsuit, was designed to resolve historic Navajo Nation waterrights claims without litigation. Negotiations to resolve the issue were begun in 1993; a tentative settlement proposal was reached a decade later.

The agreement includes more than $850 million in infrastructure for a massive, rural water-supply system to bring water to the Navajo reservation. A pipeline is planned that would run from the Nenahnezad area to the city of Gallup, N.M., 100 miles south.

The San Juan Settlement Agreement was signed by the state of New Mexico and the tribe on April 19, 2005. Now it faces a lengthy struggle to obtain funding from Congress.

Critics of the settlement say the San Juan is already over-allocated, but proponents argue that the project will bring water to arid, impoverished areas. It is also expected that the Navajo Nation will sell or lease some of its water rights for projects such as the proposed $2.2 billion coal-burning Desert Rock Power Plant near Burnham, N.M.

Make a difference

The Wild Rivers Expeditions group had returned from its trip with the Fountain Valley kids. I sat around a table at Wild Rivers’ headquarters listening to guides and other company members. They described the enthusiasm and intelligence of the international students, their awe-struck impressions of the river canyons, the archaeology, the breathtaking beauty.

Education has always been a key part of the Wild Rivers experience. These young people, breathing fire with every breath, agree on one thing: By emphasizing environment, ecology, and intelligent use, they can make a positive difference in the river’s future.

Sustainability of the San Juan River is crucial to those who live and visit here. It would be tragic if, because we humans could not meet our water demands, the San Juan would have to be sacrificed, as has the Little Colorado.

Gail Binkly contributed to this article.

From May 2006.