River Beat: LaRue and the Question of How Much Water There Really Was

Between the USGS, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Library of Congress, Calisphere and others, there are so many great old Colorado River photos around that it’s easy to think the early history of the river’s development happened in black and white. I get lost in them.

Three guys working on a boat, Birdseye expedition, Colorado River, 1923. Courtesy USGS.

Three guys working on a boat, Birdseye expedition, Colorado River, 1923. Courtesy USGS.

Today’s treasure is a photo from the 1923 Birdseye expedition, a 1923 survey of the river between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek, through the Grand Canyon. This came just after the completion of the Colorado River Compact, as they were trying to decide where to build the big dam. Most everyone thought the Boulder Canyon/Black Canyon reach was the best spot. But E.C. LaRue, one of the river’s great early hydrologists, thought Glen Canyon was a better place. A little biographical discussion I recently found (pdf) says LaRue thought the Boulder site would be a waste of money and water:

He considered the controversial Boulder Dam a waste of taxpayers money and a waste of river water primarily due to the expected evaporation from the large surface area of the resulting reservoir.

According to the USBR, about 600,000 acre feet per year of water evaporates from Lake Mead on average. That’s about 7 percent of the total average annual inflow.

LaRue also was one of the technical voices back then arguing that there was insufficient water in the Colorado River for all the uses eager developers were planning. Given our current situation, that shows some foresight on his part, though the discussion back then was primarily focused on the acreage of agriculture that could be irrigated. They weren’t really thinking Phoenix or Las Vegas as we now know them.

The USGS photo archive doesn’t identify the three men in the picture, but the metadata suggests it was taken by LaRue, who was reported to have done the photography on the Birdseye expedition.