The Colorado River Basin is the hardest working and most threatened river basin in America. From headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado supplies water to industry, agriculture, and more than 30 million people across the Western United States. Before running its course its flow is so tapped, diverted, and dammed that it no longer reaches the sea.
A single tributary of this great Red River has yet to be tamed. The Yampa, in northwest Colorado, is the last wild river in the Colorado watershed and one of the last free-flowing rivers in the nation. From where it rises, in the Flat Top Mountains above the town of Steamboat, it runs westward to join the Green River in Utah, which turns south to flow into the Colorado. It is no accident that the Yampa still runs free. It required dedication and hard work.
In 1953, my father took my brother Bob and me down the Yampa and Green Rivers with a party of Sierra Club rafters. The year before, my old man, David Brower, had become the first executive director of the Club, and the Yampa was his first big battleground. We were all chess pieces in his campaign to kill a pair of proposed dams on the Green River, which would have flooded the canyons of the Green and its tributary, the Yampa, inundating the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. My father orchestrated the prototypic modern preservationist campaign: a book, a film, magazine and newspaper articles, slideshows, grassroots organizing out West, lobbying on both coasts, and flotillas of rafts down the threatened rivers. These river trips were fun, but also tactical. They were intended to build a constituency for these remote and little known tributaries. If Dinosaur National Monument was to be saved, then its canyons had to become known and loved by motivated people.
My father and his faction won. It was the first time in American history that a group of citizens stopped a big government project. The victory brought the Club into national prominence and it served as template for the successful fight, a decade later, against two dams proposed for Grand Canyon. A number of historians agree that this campaign on the Yampa and Green sparked the modern environmental movement.
Last year, I traveled down the Yampa again, more than 60 years after my first descent. As we passed the two proposed dams sites, I felt a surge of pride in my father. At Echo Park, where the Bureau of Reclamation intended to build a dam 529 feet high, nothing marks the spot but a test hole drilled into the canyon wall. That hole is proof of what my father’s friend, Margaret Mead, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
But the Yampa is far from safe. With climate change and the worst drought in 1,200 years bearing down, we are facing the worst water crisis in history or prehistory. Competition for water is fierce and as drought and population increases continue to tighten their grip on the West’s working rivers, wild and healthy rivers like the Yampa are, and will continue to be, targeted for water diversions and dams.
Organizations like the Club and American Rivers continue to fight to safeguard the Yampa and other wild rivers. We need rivers like Yampa. If we do not work together to protect our last free-flowing wild rivers and restore those we can, we will come to profoundly regret their loss. It is entirely possible, and necessary, to sustain our communities and farms while safeguarding clean water, endangered wildlife, and threatened ecosystems. We will do so by keeping our living rivers alive.
Kenneth Brower is the oldest son of the pioneering environmentalist David Brower. Ken’s earliest memories are of the wild country of the American West. He writes on environment and natural history for The Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other magazines. He is the author of many books, among them The Starship and the Canoe, Wake of the Whale, A Song For Satawal, Freeing Keiko, One Earth, Realms of the Sea, and, most recently, The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower, and Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake. He lives in Berkeley, California.
- Nat Geo Expeditions