What’s in a River’s Name?

How the Grand River became the Colorado.

This article was originally written in 2018 and updated in June 2023.

Is the name of a river really that important? If it's the "Colorado River," absolutely. The Colorado River is a lifeline in the West for people, birds, and nature. On July 25th, Colorado River Day, we pause to celebrate and reflect on the awe-inspiring 1,450 miles of the Colorado River.

But the "Colorado River" has not always traveled this distance. The Colorado River flowed from the subalpine headwater meadows of present-day Rocky Mountain National Park to the Gulf of California for millions and millions of years. The River got so developed in just the last 100 years that it has rarely flowed to the sea for decades. And, the Colorado River never did before 1921, but not because of hydrology.

Indigenous peoples named the rivers of the Colorado Basin. Then, Western Europeans began applying their names, starting with Spanish exploration in the 16th century. Until 1921, the Spanish name "Colorado"—meaning "red"— flowed exclusively below the confluence of the Grand and Green Rivers deep inside modern-day Canyonlands National Park in Utah. As Europeans settled into the West, they named the stretch of river between the Green and the Gunnison Rivers the Grand River. Late in the 1800s, the name "Grand River" replaced many other river names and was applied to the growing river flowing from the western slopes of La Poudre Pass on the Continental Divide in northern Colorado to the confluence with the Green River in Utah (about 350 river miles).

Today, the legacy of the name "Grand River" persists in place names. The Grand River lent its name to: the Grand Ditch, which pulls water from the Colorado River's headwaters to the eastern slope; the town of Grand Lake, the City of Grand Junction, in the Grand Valley, from its location at the junction of the Gunnison and Colorado (formerly the Grand) Rivers. Both Utah and Colorado have a Grand County named after the river. However, the Grand Canyon was named by John Wesley Powell purely for the grandeur of the Canyon rather than for the river's upper reaches.

Early in 1921, the Colorado River was at the center of a brawl over names and ownership brewing in the State of Colorado and the U.S. House of Representatives. The Honorable Colorado Congressman Edward Taylor, a Glenwood Springs resident, advocate for West Slope water, and known for being a fount of knowledge and love for Colorado, presented a determined case to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the United States House of Representatives. To Taylor names mattered, and he had one goal: to convince the Committee to pass a resolution to Congress that would officially change the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River. Although the states of Utah and Wyoming opposed it, Taylor had fuel for his case from supportive Coloradans and state legislators for the name change of the river, Colorado's namesake river.

There was disagreement. At that time, the Colorado River began in Utah below the confluence of the Grand and Green Rivers. Politicians from Utah and Wyoming opposed the name change because the Green River, which runs through Utah and Wyoming, is the longer tributary with a larger drainage area. Congressman Taylor rebutted their arguments with two justifications. First, the Grand River contributes a significantly larger volume of water than the Green River. And second, the Grand River originates in the State of Colorado and should be known as the Colorado River.

Congressman Taylor's efforts triumphed. On July 25th, 1921, Congress passed House Joint Resolution 460, which officially changed the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River. But "Colorado" was just the last name in this amazing river's long line of labels. A little over a year later, the  Colorado River Compact of 1922  was finalized, guiding the River's apportionment.

Due to the historic name change, July 25th is now known as Colorado River Day. This day honors the River's history and its critical importance to people and the environment. Riparian habitats like the forests and wetlands that line the Colorado River support some of the arid West's most abundant and diverse bird communities, serving as home to some 400 species. The Colorado River also provides drinking water for more than 40 million people, 90% of the nation's winter vegetable production, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farms and ranches, and supports 16 million jobs throughout seven states, with a combined annual economic impact of $1.4 trillion.

Congressman Taylor's love for the Colorado River and his state serve as examples to us now when there is so much talk about water scarcity, conflict, a rethinking of river relationships, and needed rebalancing of how the West lives with the realities of the River's water availability. The value of the Colorado River is essential to all of us and the ecosystems we depend upon, and it's up to us to ensure its future.


United States. Congress. Renaming of the Grand River, Colorado. Hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives on H. J. Res. 460. 66th Cong., 3rd sess. Washington: https://legisource.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Hearing-Report-Transcript-RenameGrandRiverColorado1921.pdf 

USBR Colorado River Compact: https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/pao/pdfiles/crcompct.pdf