Western Water News

What’s in a River’s Name?

How the Grand River became the Colorado.

Is the name of a river really that important? If it’s the Colorado River, absolutely. The Colorado River serves as a lifeline in the West for people and birds. Today, there is a lot of talk about another dry year in the Colorado River Basin and the increasing need for state and federal funding (and action) to protect the river’s benefits and values. July 25th, Colorado River Day, is the day we pause to celebrate and reflect on the awe-inspiring 1,450 miles of the Colorado River that flow from the high peaks in Colorado to Mexico. But the Colorado has not always traveled this distance.

Though indigenous tribes had most certainly named the rivers of the Colorado Basin, Western Europeans began applying their own names beginning 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 Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. 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’s present-day Rocky Mountain National Park to the confluence with the Green River in Utah.

Today, the history of the Grand River persists in place names. The Grand River lent its name to Grand Junction, a city on Colorado’s western slope 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. The Grand Canyon, however, was named by John Wesley Powell purely for the grandeur of the Canyon, not for the river’s upper reaches.

Early in 1921, the Colorado was at the center of a brawl over names and ownership brewing in the State of Colorado and in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Honorable Edward Taylor, a Colorado Congressman, presented a determined case to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the United States House of Representatives.  He had one goal: to convince the Committee to pass a resolution forward to Congress that would officially change the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River. Congressman 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 opposition. 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 based on the fact that the Green River, which runs through both 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 therefore should be known as the Colorado River.

Congressman Taylor’s efforts were successful. On July 25, 1921, Congress passed House Joint Resolution 460 which officially changed the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River.

Due to the historic name change, July 25th is now known as Colorado River Day. This is a day which honors not only the river’s history, but also its critical importance to both people and the environment. Riparian habitats like the forests and wetlands that line the Colorado River support some of the most abundant and diverse bird communities in the arid West, serving as home to some 400 species. The Colorado River also provides drinking water for more than 36 million people, 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. The value of the Colorado River is important to all of us, and it’s up to us to ensure its future.

Special thanks to Sara Porterfield, PhD, Colorado River historian for content review.

Resources:

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: GPO Committee transcript Renaming of the Grand River, Colorado 1921

CO Map 1913 Showing Grand River: https://dspace.library.colostate.edu/handle/10217/2119

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