Little Colorado River

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Coordinates: 36°11′28″N 111°48′14″W / 36.19111°N 111.80389°W / 36.19111; -111.80389
Little Colorado River
Tółchíʼíkooh (Navajo)
Colorado Chiquito (Spanish)
The Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River at average flow
Country United States
States Arizona, New Mexico
Region Apache County
Part of Colorado River
 - left Silver Creek
 - right Zuni River, Puerco River
Primary source West Fork Little Colorado River
 - location Mount Baldy, White Mountains
 - elevation 10,000 ft (3,048 m)
Secondary source East Fork Little Colorado River
Source confluence
 - location Greer
 - elevation 8,359 ft (2,548 m)
 - coordinates 34°00′15″N 109°27′24″W / 34.00417°N 109.45667°W / 34.00417; -109.45667
Mouth Colorado River
 - location Grand Canyon, Coconino County
 - elevation 2,700 ft (823 m)
 - coordinates 36°11′28″N 111°48′14″W / 36.19111°N 111.80389°W / 36.19111; -111.80389
Length 315 mi (507 km), Southeast-Northwest
Basin 26,500 sq mi (68,635 km2)
 - average 405 cu ft/s (11 m3/s)
 - max 120,000 cu ft/s (3,398 m3/s)
 - min 150 cu ft/s (4 m3/s)

The Little Colorado River is a river in the U.S. state of Arizona,[1] providing the principal drainage from the Painted Desert region. Together with its major tributary, the Puerco River, it drains an area of about 26,500 square miles (69,000 km2) in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. This Colorado River tributary is over 315 miles (507 km) long, but being a transient desert river, its average discharge is typically less than 400 cubic feet per second (11 m3/s), and can vary greatly throughout the year.


The river rises as two forks in the White Mountains of mid-eastern Arizona, in Apache County. The West Fork starts in a valley on the north flank of Mount Baldy at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 m), while the East Fork starts nearby, eventually joining together in a canyon near the town of Greer, forming the main Little Colorado River. It flows into River Reservoir, then leaves the canyon near Eagar. The river then turns north, meandering through Richville Valley, before emptying into Lyman Lake, impounded by a dam built for irrigation purposes.[2] From there the river continues north, past the town of St. Johns. Shortly afterwards, the river transforms from a perennial stream to a transient wash as it travels northwestwards through Hunt Valley where it receives the Zuni River, then receiving Silver Creek and the Puerco River, its main tributaries, near the town of Holbrook as it flows into the Painted Desert.[3]

It then passes Joseph City and crosses the Southern Transcon route of the BNSF Railway (originally the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad), now winding north into Coconino County. Now an ephemeral wash, the river passes into the Navajo Indian Reservation, and drops over the 185-foot (56 m) Grand Falls of the Little Colorado shortly after. Grand Falls marks the beginning of a deep, jagged canyon that soon turns into a wide valley between low bluffs, before transforming into a gorge for the final time near Cameron. From there, the Little Colorado River carves deeper and deeper into the Colorado Plateau, growing in size as it receives water from numerous springs in the canyon walls. The canyon spreads wider as the river runs farther north, becoming an arm of the Grand Canyon, then the river merges with the Colorado deep inside the Grand Canyon, miles from any major settlement.[3]


The Little Colorado River is one of the two major tributaries of the Colorado River in Arizona.[4] According to a streamflow gauge near Cameron, before the river enters the Grand Canyon, the river's average annual flow was 367.2 cubic feet per second (10.40 m3/s) from 1948 to present. The highest was 1,127 cubic feet per second (31.9 m3/s) in 1973, and the lowest was 14.1 cubic feet per second (0.40 m3/s) in 2000.[5] The river's peak flows can be far higher than its average flow, because of quick desert runoff from cloudbursts. At the same gauge, peak flows were recorded from 1923 to 2008, with spotty data from 1924 to 1947. The highest recorded peak was 120,000 cubic feet per second (3,400 m3/s) on September 20, 1923, while the lowest was 1,590 cubic feet per second (45 m3/s) in 1974.[6]


The Little Colorado River (right)'s confluence with the Colorado River (center). Note that the Little Colorado is a light brown color caused by recent cloudbursts, while the Colorado is an emerald green. When Powell and his crew arrived here in 1869, it was this color of the river that they saw, while the Colorado's green color is caused by Glen Canyon Dam trapping sediment.
The Little Colorado River in its canyon

The presence of humans in the Little Colorado River watershed dates back to the early Holocene epoch, in the last glacial period. Nomadic hunter-gatherers inhabited the relatively water-rich and diverse upper basin of the Little Colorado for almost 8,000 years before the premodern Navajo, Apache and Hopi tribes came into being. Many of these people practiced small-scale irrigated agriculture in desert riverside villages, especially in sheltered canyons and cliffs.[7] Early Spanish explorers exploring the Grand Canyon area were most likely the first Europeans to see the Little Colorado River. They called it Colorado Chiquito, the Little Colorado.[8] Other than fur trappers and mountain men, one of the first organized expeditions into the area of the Little Colorado River was one led by Amiel Weeks Whipple in 1853-1854 [9] during one of the expeditions to map out a route for a cross continental railroad. Called The Great Railroad Expeditions, or Pacific Railroad Surveys, Whipple's consisted of several teams going roughly along the 35th parallel from Albuquerque to the Pacific. It pretty much followed the Santa Fe Trail route. The Little Colorado River also known as the Flax River, and the first Rio Chiquito, is depicted and labelled as such on a map compiled by Lt. Joseph C.(Christmas)Ives and published in the Official volumes of those expeditions. Ives, would in 1858 again return to the area after navigating a steamboat named the 'Explorer' up the Colorado from south of Yuma northwards to Blacks Canyon at which point his party went ashore and attempted to go up into the Grand Canyon until the sheer cliffs prevented him from doing so, at which point he left the canyon and proceeded overland and someplace in the vicinity of the Grand Falls also known as the Chocolate falls on the Little Colorado, he picked up the Whipple trail from four years previously.[10]

The Powell Geographic Expedition, on August 10, 1869, was one of the first American parties to sight the Little Colorado River.[11] Powell and some of his crew explored a segment of the Little Colorado River canyon, although they mainly found it impassable. In diary entries, they recorded its name as "Flax River", for the flax that makes up much of the river's riparian zone[12]—and "Colorado Chiquito"—so, presumably they already knew about the river before they had come on the expedition.[13]

This was, in fact, an inaccurate description in comparison to the Little Colorado's normal flow. While the muddy quality they saw in the river was caused by flash flooding, the river normally is a light blue color caused by dissolved travertine and limestone in the water, similar to Havasu Creek, another southern tributary of the Colorado within the Grand Canyon.[11]

In the 1870s, Mormon colonists migrated southwards from Salt Lake City and settled in the lower part of the Little Colorado River valley.[14] Expeditions had been sent into the basin about five years before to determine the qualities of the area. The Mormons founded Joseph City near the confluence with the Puerco River, and four others nearby, although Joseph City is the only one that still exists. Settlers continued traveling into the area through 1876, although many of them had great difficulty in crossing the Little Colorado. Although shallow and slow-flowing, the river flows through soft sand and in some places, even quicksand, creating non-ideal conditions for their wagons.[15]

There were two primary crossings of the Little Colorado—one at the Grand Falls, and one at Black Falls, a smaller waterfall some 10 miles (16 km) downstream. It was easier to ford the river at the two waterfalls because at that point, it flows over hard bedrock, making the crossing much easier. The Mormons also made many attempts to construct dams on the river to provide irrigation water—as far upstream as the confluence of the river's forks and as far downstream as below Grand Falls—but most of them failed because of the Little Colorado's fickle variations in discharge.[16] Finally, they managed to construct one at Joseph City that lasted for 29 years. Despite the continued hardships, the Mormons persisted, successfully established their colonies, and survived in the region for many decades.[16][17] Later, Hispanics began to move into the Little Colorado River watershed from the Rio Grande area, establishing St. Johns and Concho. American ranchers from New Mexico also began to colonize the region, creating Eagar and Springerville.[18] For many years, Mormons were the primary group living in the watershed until the 1960s, when their independent towns and farms were absorbed into the growing Arizonan economy.[7]

River modifications[edit]

Because of its arid location and sparsely populated surroundings, most of the Little Colorado has not been affected much by human intervention. However, near its headwaters, the river is dammed twice, first in River Reservoir, then in Lyman Lake, where its water is diverted for irrigation. Another reservoir downstream of Springerville, where Mormon colonists dammed the river in 1905 to form Zion Reservoir, is now completely silted in. Many earthen and masonry dams were originally built along the river by the Mormons, but most of them no longer exist. At very few points in its course is the river confined by levees, except for a 2,300-foot (700 m) floodwall near Holbrook. The river is also rarely crossed by bridges.

In one of the worst radioactive spills in the U.S. history, on July 16, 1979 100 million gallons of radioactive water containing uranium tailings breached into the North Fork of the Puerco River from a tailing pond of a uranium mine owned by Kerr-McGee Company and United Nuclear Corporation. Approximately 1,100 tons of uranium mine waste contaminated 250 acres (1.0 km2) of land and up to 50 miles (80 km) of the Puerco River, traveling into the Little Colorado River as far as the Navajo Indian Reservation. Traces of the spill can still be found today.[19][20]

Little Colorado River gorge part of the Grand Canyon National Park

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Little Colorado River". Geographic Names Information System, U.S. Geological Survey. 1980-02-08. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  2. ^ "Lyman Lake State Park". Arizona State Parks. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  3. ^ a b ACME Mapper. USGS Topo Maps for United States (Map). Cartography by United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2010-01-17.
  4. ^ See File:Coloradorivermap.jpg; the other is the Gila River.
  5. ^ "USGS Gage #09402000 on the Little Colorado River near Cameron (Average Annual Streamflow)". National Water Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. 1947-present. Retrieved 2010-01-17.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. ^ "USGS Gage #09402000 on the Little Colorado River near Cameron (Peak Streamflow)". National Water Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. 1923-present. Retrieved 2010-01-17.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. ^ a b "The Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona". Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau. Land Use History of North America. Retrieved 2010-10-17. 
  8. ^ "Rivers of Arizona: Size, Extent, Etc.". Books of the Southwest. University of Arizona Library. p. 39. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  9. ^ Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. 
  10. ^ also see Goetzmann, William H. "Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863," 1959.
  11. ^ a b c Dolnick, Edward (2002). Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon. HarperCollins. p. 234. ISBN 0-06-095586-4. 
  12. ^ Euler, Robert C. (2009-01-13). "The Archaeology of the Canyon Country". Geological Survey Professional Paper 670: John Wesley Powell and the Anthropology of the Canyon Country. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  13. ^ Powell, John Wesley (2004). Cooley, John, ed. Exploring the Colorado River: Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 148–150. ISBN 0-486-43525-3. 
  14. ^ Abruzzi, William S. (1993). Dam that river! Ecology and Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin. University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-9126-4. 
  15. ^ Dam that river! Ecology and Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin, p. 20
  16. ^ a b Abruzzi, William S. "Ecology and Mormon Colonization in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona". Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau. Land Use History of North America. Retrieved 2010-10-17. 
  17. ^ Abruzzi, William S. "The social and ecological consequences of early cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin". Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau. Land Use History of North America. Retrieved 2010-10-17. 
  18. ^ Dam that river! Ecology and Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin, p. 21
  19. ^ Brendan Giusti, Radiation Spill in Church Rock Still Haunts 30 Years Later, The Daily Times (Farmington, New Mexico), July 16, 2009, Section: Local
  20. ^ Carl Jensen, Project Censored (U.S.) 20 Years of Censored News Seven Stories Press, July 1, 2003, p. 84, ISBN 1-888363-52-5

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