Gaylord Staveley header
Whitewater Boatman &
Author of Grand Canyon &
Colorado River Books
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The Colorado River-Grand Canyon Water War

Hover over image to pause.

Big Red is one of the nicer names applied to the Colorado River known for its sometimes rampant behavior. In 1965 the Bureau of Reclamation wrote, "when the [Colorado River Storage Project] system is complete, . . . Big Red, the outlaw river, will finally be tamed."

Taking Big Red is an appropriate title for this water war book, because two definitions for "taking" are in conflict: 1) to engage in, like taking a river trip, and 2) to appropriate, as in making something one's own.

Some river takings are non-consumptive, as simple as a drink or a dunk, or the need to cross to the other side, or the compulsion to take a boat upstream or down.

Other takings are consumptive, creating conflict over where river water originates versus where it's "needed", who took it first, and for what purpose.

In the early 1900s the fight was against the river, because near its mouth it was too big and periodically ran wild. Today's fight, which is covered in Taking Big Red, is because the river isn't big enough.

At the epicenter of this water war is allocation — the assignment of water rights to persons or entities. The river's water was allocated on the heels of a "wet period", and this intensifies the fight during "normal" and "drought" periods.

Recreational river runners have no water rights or water allocations. Their use is apportioned between commercial and private trips. Permits limit the number of daily launches, group size, trip length and by motorized and rowed.

Taking Big Red covers the entanglement of Grand Canyon river boating with environmentalists' agendas, biological concerns, hydropower management, and the water rights and allocations to seven states.

Other historical controversies in Taking Big Red include Sierra Club's "oars versus motors" and the Grand Canyon National Park's two categories of recreational river runners — commercial and private. The Park established criteria for the distinction, but did not sustain the distinction. This breach resulted in one of the earliest battles.

The Colorado River may or may not have been "tamed", but it has been totally "taken" by conflicting purposes and over-allocation. Taking Big Red begins here. It also includes present day frays over the condition of the Colorado River — who gets to use it, what for, how much, and when.


Book Details

  • Published by Fretwater Press
  • 298 pages
  • 26 photos and illustrations
  • 4 appendices
  • Bibliography, Index
  • ISBN: Cloth 978-1-892327-00-0
  • Paper 978-1-892327-00-0
  • Paperbound $19.95
  • Hardbound $29.95


  • The Wait They Loved to Hate (1970 - 1979)
  • The counting and classification of commercial passengers and private boaters begins, and the stage is set for a thirty-year battle.
  • Other Battles (1971 - 1974)
  • The Coast Guard wants jurisdiction; the Sierra Club wants river wilderness; passenger allocations and an illegal river management plan are introduced.
  • The Colorado River Research Program (1974 - 1976)
  • The National Park Service decides studies are needed as a basis for river management.
  • Power Plays (1966 - 1981)
  • Dam-controlled peaking power has altered river flows and flow patterns; now changes in generating capacity portend further altering.
  • Pie Fight (1978 - 1980)
  • The first official river management plan reallocates river use and proposes elimination of motorized trips. Intermural battles begin among river runners.
  • Crunching Numbers (1979 - 1980)
  • Congress tells the Park Service to discard the 1979 river management plan and write another one.
  • Hydropolitics (1982 - 1993)
  • Glen Canyon Dam’s generating patterns and power sales are challenged; lawsuits ensue; studies begin; Congress gets involved.
  • Resolution (1980 - 1982)
  • Congress rejects the river management plan and writes one of its own.
  • Borrowing Trouble (1981 - 1989)
  • An intensified assault on commercial allocations; the pitfalls of passenger pooling.
  • Game Changers (1989 - 1995)
  • Another river management plan; concessions reform legislation; the new park superintendent tries an advisory panel of adversaries.
  • Payback (1982 - 1989)
  • The price of political involvement.
  • Time Out (1995 - 2001)
  • Contract bidding battle; river management is entangled with wilderness proposal; park superintendent is sued for suspending river management planning.
  • Firewalk (2002 - 2004)
  • Coalition of outfitters and private boaters tries to solve allocation controversy; splinter group of private boaters organizes as River Runners for Wilderness.
  • The Fifty-Five Premise (2004 - 2014)
  • The 2006 river management plan gives private boaters half of the total allocation. River Runners for Wilderness files lawsuit, loses, files appeal, loses.
  • Water and Sand and Flying Fish (1993 - 2005)
  • Fifteen-year controversy over Glen Canyon Damn operations results in the introduction of science, research, and adaptive management.
  • Time and Titration (2004 - 2012)
  • Two decades of research and monitoring have revealed intricate relationships between water, sand, habitat, and creatures. Scientists need to know more.
  • Is There Enough Water (2016)
  • Major Powell said no, and that was in the 1880s. Now a prolonged drought has lakes Powell and Mead nearing the level at which no water can go through the dams.