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Lake Havasu
A look at its history,
Where it is and where it may be heading.
By Richard Croonquist

Its History

The Colorado River and its tributaries make up one of the greatest river systems of North America.
The Colorado reaches into 7 states and drains an area just under 250 million square miles. It begins
14,000 feet above sea level in the Never Summer Mountain Range in Northern Colorado and ends
1,700 miles later at the Gulf of California. The rivers course, that we know today, has evolved over an
estimated 12 million years.
The people native to this region called themselves "Pipa Aha Macave" -; People by the River.
Today, these people belong to what is known as the Mohave (or Mojave) Nation. The indian nation is
divided into 3 sections, the Northern Mojave -; "Matha Lyathum", Central Mojave -;
"Hutto-pah" and the Southern Mohave -; "Kavi Lyathum". The Northern and Central use the
"Mojave" spelling, while the Southern uses the "Mohave" spelling. The Southern Mohave Indians
occupied the area that, today, includes Lake Havasu. The Mohave people were primarily hunters and
gatherers, but they also engaged in small scale farming and fishing along the Colorado.

In 1869, Major John W. Powell became the first white man to successfully voyage through the Grand
Canyon. He was the first to survey the Colorado River and chart its course. Powell is, also, credited
with naming Glen, Grand and Boulder Canyons.

In the early 1920, millions of people were living in the semi-arid Los Angeles basin and they
were using more water than the area could supply. More as a matter of self-preservation, a large group
of people decided to supplement their water supply by tapping the only remaining fresh water source,
the Colorado River. One problem facing them was that the river lay hundreds of miles to the east of
the coastal plain on which they lived. Another problem would be water allocation.

In 1922, representatives from the 7 affected states and the United States government created the
Colorado River Compact. This divided the states into upper (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New
Mexico) and lower (Nevada, California, Arizona) basins and giving each basin a 7.5 million acre-foot
(325,851 gallons) allotment each year. But political and legal disagreements between California and
Arizona over water rights would dominate the compact for the next 22 years. Arizona finally approved
the compact in 1944. This compact provides California with 4.4 million acre-feet, Arizona with 2.8
million and Nevada with 300,000 acre-feet per year.

The job of surveying, planning and building the Colorado River Aqueduct would take 16 years to
complete. The initial length would be 392 miles, with an ultimate capacity of one billion gallons of
water per day.

In October 1923, surveyors set out to complete the task of mapping out the little known Colorado
River basin. This would take 7 years to complete. These men ultimately laid out more than 100
different routes from the Colorado River to the Los Angeles Basin.

In December 1928, Los Angeles and 10 other cities formed the Metropolitan Water District of
Southern California (MWD). These cities now had the capacity to form bond issues to fully fund this

In November 1930, Frank Weymouth, MWD's first chief engineer and his staff decided on
the Parker Route. The plan would include a dam site north of Parker, AZ, with an aqueduct heading
west. What made this route so appealing is that it lay completely in California and would not be
subject to taxation by another state. In January 1931, MWD's Board of Directors approved
the route.

Construction of Parker Dam began in September 1934, with a 600-man crew. It was completed in
1938. Shortly after construction began, however, it was halted for nearly a year. This was because
Arizona and California could not agree on water and electricity allotments stemming from the
dam's construction. Then Arizona Governor Moeur declared martial law and called out the
Arizona National Guard. When an agreement was reached, construction resumed.

Parker Dam is named after the town of Parker, Arizona. Parker is located 17 miles to the south and
was named after Frank Parker, a Civil Engineer who did the area surveying for the Arizona &
California Railroad Company. Parker Dam is a Federal Dam, built by the United States Bureau of
Reclamation (BOR) with funds provided by MWD bonds sold to the Public Works Administration.

The reservoir behind Parker Dam was originally named Parker Reservoir. As fate would have it, in
January 1939 MWD officials took the local Mohave Indian Tribal Elder - Haranai and his wife,
Ooach, on a tour of the new Parker Dam facility. Respectfully, they inquired about the white
man's "magic" that had changed the color of the Colorado River from red to blue.

To these old Indians (102 years and 97 years respectively), who had lived their entire lives on the
banks of the Colorado since this "land of Cibola" was still a part of Mexico, there was only one name
that could be given to this great body of blue water. That name was Havasu. Roughly translated Lake
Havasu means "Lake of the Blue Water". The new name was recommended to the Board of
Geographic Names and was officially adopted on June 1, 1939.

The Colorado River Aqueduct officially went on line October 14, 1939.


        Height 320 feet
        Crest 856 feet
        Depth Below Riverbed 235 feet
        Above Riverbed 85 feet


        Water Storage Capacity 619,400 acre-feet
        Maximum Surface Elevation 450 feet above sea level
        Reservoir Length 45 miles
        Reservoir Average Width 1 mile
        Area Covered 25,000 acres

Lake Havasu Water Quality

In the early 1940's water quality concerns were limited to hardness, i.e.: calcium and
magnesium content. MWD did no water testing or treating at Lake Havasu itself. All testing was done
at the termination point, Lake Mathews. Initial tests were done before and after treatment and looked
for the following:

        Silica - SiO2
        Iron - Fe
        Calcium - Ca
        Sodium - Na
        Potassium - K
        Carbonate - CO3
        Bicarbonate - HCO3
        Sulfate - SO4
        Chloride - Cl
        Nitrate - NO2
        Boron - B
        Fluorine - F
        Hardness as CaCO3
        Free Carbon Dioxide - CO2
        Hydrogen ion concentration - pH
        Specific electrical conductance at 25 degrees C - Kx10.5

Over the years, Federal water quality laws forced states to adopt more stringent testing. In 1994
California's Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR) - Title 22, California Code of
Regulations (CCR) - required every public water system treating surface water conduct to a
comprehensive sanitary survey of its watershed(s) every 5 years. The SWTR stems from the Federal
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), enacted by Congress in 1974 and last amended in 1996. This act
provides the "basis for safeguarding public drinking water systems from contaminants that pose a
threat to public health", including protection against microbial pathogens such as Giardia and other

For water traveling through the aqueduct, MWD has assumed the responsibility of conducting this
sanitary survey. The latest survey was conducted between March and December 1995, and are
summarized in this report.

The drainage area of the Parker watershed (Lake Havasu) consists of about 9000 sq. miles, which
include the population centers of Lake Havasu City, Kingman and Bullhead City, AZ; Laughlin, NV;
and Needles, CA (see figure 1). The area's population during the 1990 U.S. Census was an
estimated 106,500. By 2015, the area population is expected to double.

The 1995 survey showed that the Parker watershed is subject to many potential contamination
sources. Pathogens such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium are of special concerns because of their
ability to survive in the environment for a very long time.

Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia are parasites that are the cause of the intestinal tract
diseases Cryptosporidiosis and Giardiasis. Both live in a protective shell called an "oocyst". This
enables them to survive many environmental conditions and be resistant to disinfection.
Cryptosporidium has only been known to cause disease in humans since 1976.

Wastewater treatment for the majority of the drainage area is by septic tank or by
evaporation/percolation ponds. About 92 percent of Lake Havasu City use septic systems. Lake
Havasu City has 3 wastewater treatment plants which do not discharge in the lake or river (effluent is
used for irrigation or percolated into the soil). One of Lake Havasu City's treatment plants is
located on the island with influent and effluent lines in the London Bridge Channel.

Hundreds of thousands of people recreate on Lake Havasu each year. Recreational activities include
swimming, water skiing, boating and personal watercraft use. These activities provide a potential for
fuel spills into the lake from boats and marina fueling areas and raised coliform levels. In the past,
beaches on Lake Havasu have been closed because of high fecal coliform (e-coli) levels.

Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) is a man-made fuel additive designed to add extra oxygen to
gasoline. This makes fuel burn cleaner, thus reducing air pollution. These reformulated gasolines have
been required by the Clean Air Act since 1990.


MTBE appearing in drinking water sources is a concern because of its low taste and odor threshold
and potential health effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has issued a
drinking-water advisory of 20 to 40 micrograms per liter (ug/L) on the basis of taste and odor
thresholds. California, however, has set a limit of 5 ug/L standard for drinking water. To date tests on
MTBE, though incomplete, are finding that high exposure levels in rodents may cause kidney and liver
tumors. Headache, nausea, nasal and eye irritation have been reported among people living in areas
where MTBE-oxygenated gas is used.

Gasoline containing MTBE (reformulated-gasoline) is about 50 times more soluble in water than
conventional gasoline. To date, MTBE has contaminated and estimated 10,000 groundwater sites in

In April 1997, tests were begun for perchlorates. Ammonium perchlorate is a man-made inorganic salt
that is an oxygen-adding component of solid rocket fuel, munitions and fireworks. Because of its
limited shelf life, inventories must be periodically replaced with a fresh supply. Large volumes of the
compound have been disposed of in Nevada, California and Utah since the 1950's.
Ammonium perchlorate is very soluble and is mobile in ground and surface waters. The compound
also degrades slowly in the environment, thus it cannot be removed by conventional methods.

Two facilities, which manufacture ammonium perchlorate near Henderson Nevada, were found to
have released it into groundwater. It is known that the Las Vegas Wash is transporting the compound
into Lake Mead, which then feeds into the Colorado River.

MWD testing showed that perchlorate levels in the lake currently range from "not-detected" to 6 parts
per billion (ppb). The maximum safe level is 18 ppb.

In February 2000 an agreement was proposed by Department of the Interior to begin cleanup of
another potential chemical hazard to the river system. A mountain of radioactive mill tailings which
stands about 110 feet high and covers an area of about 130 acres. The 10 million-ton pile leaks an
estimated 28,000 gallons of toxic chemicals a day into the Colorado, which is only 750 feet away. The
privately owned mill processed uranium ore for the military and other government uses there for 28
years before closing in 1984 and filing for bankruptcy in 1998. As uranium decays, alpha-emitting
particles are released and are among these toxic chemicals.

MWD testing showed that gross alpha levels in the lake are currently 5 - 6 picocuries per liter
(p/l). This is up from 1 -; 3 p/l ten years ago. The maximum safe contaminant level is 15 p/l.

Coliforms are waste by-products, which occur naturally in the lake. The waste by-products include
vegetable matter, human/animal waste and the like. Tests done on the lake check for total coliform
levels first, then break it down into specific tests if needed.


There are several reasons leading to coliform found in the water. These include nutrient

loading, water temperatures and public usage.

Coliform levels typically are higher near public access beaches and in the London Bridge Channel.
The channel, which is man made, has no real flow. What little flow there is runs south to north and is
primarily wind driven. Typically the main body of Lake Havasu (the area including the original
riverbed) has no hits for coliform.

The water in Lake Havasu and on the Colorado River system is frequently affected by algae growth.
This algae, which also occurs naturally, produces the bad smelling compounds geosmin and
2-methylisoborneol (2-MIB). Algae growth fluctuates throughout the year due to changing weather
conditions. Adding copper sulfate controls algae growth.

Lake Havasu Wildlife

Prior to the completion of Parker Dam, several species of fish were found in the Colorado River.
Native species included the Razorback Sucker, Bonytail Chub, Humpback Chub and the Colorado
River Pike Minnow. Introduced sportfish included the Carp (introduced in 1880), Largemouth Bass
(1897), Black Crappie (1905), Yellow Bullhead Catfish (1920) and the Bluegill (1932). After
completion of the dam, other sportfish were introduced. They include; Flathead Catfish (1940) and
Stripped Bass (1959).

The Razorback Sucker, Bonytail Chub and Humpback Chub are all similar in that they

have evolved to be perfectly suited to the swift moving Colorado. All three have a

distinctively protruding nuchal (neck) hump and large, powerful caudal (rear) fins. The high nuchal
hump acts like a barrier to the passing water, forcing the body down, against the bottom where
currents are less. The Colorado River Pike Minnow (or Colorado Squawfish) has a more compressed
body with a strong caudal fin.

Diets of these native fish are primarily as follows: the Razorback Sucker's consists of
vegetable matter and the material from river bottom ooze. The Bonytail Chub and Humpback
Chub's consists of small insects and drifting plant matter. The Colorado River Pike
Minnow's range from insect larvae and crustaceans, to small animal and bird carcasses.

The native fish were an obvious food source for the Indians and early pioneers. The Colorado River
Pike Minnow (which could reach a length of up to 6 feet and weigh up to 100 pounds) was also a
food source for aqueduct construction crews along the Colorado.

Of the native fish found in Lake Havasu, only the Razorback Chub and the Bonytail Chub remain (see
figure 2). Both of these species are now federally endangered and under the protection of the
Endangered Species Act. Wildlife experts agree that the


decline of these native species is due, in part, to the damming of the river. The once

warm and turbulent waters of the river are now a clear, cool lake. The backwaters, flooded
bottomlands and warm water needed for spawning were lost. Another reason for their disappearance
is predation on them during early stages of life by non-native (sport) fish.

The Colorado River Pike Minnow's habitat and breeding areas were unique. These fish

preferred large rivers with moderate to strong current, deep eddies and pools. Prior to the completion
of the dams, the Pike Minnow traveled upstream in "spawning runs",

sometimes up to 100 miles. Needless to say, upon completion of the aqueduct system, their habitat
was decimated. The Colorado River Pike Minnow is no longer found in Arizona.

Upon completion of Parker Dam, the sport fish population became "supercharged". They suddenly
had room to grow. The Largemouth Bass (introduced in 1897) suddenly had the habitat it enjoyed,
clear water, with structure and cover. Then in 1959, the Striped Bass was introduced. This fish enjoys
open, clear water. Both fish are opportunistic carnivores that will eat anything that moves -;
alive or dead.

As part of the life cycle of the lake, the fish population surged up, leveled off, then began to decline.
After heavy rain and flooding in 1983, the population was, again, supercharged and the cycle was
repeated. Since then, fish and wildlife study groups have found that the natural cover for the fish have
all but disappeared, and the lake provides few places for the fish to hide and grow. Fish populations
have steadily declined over the years.

In 1992, the Lake Havasu Fisheries Improvement Program was launched. Goals for this program are
to increase sport-fishing opportunities and to try to augment the dwindling native fish populations in
the lake. This partnership program is made up of several agencies including: Bureau of Land
Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), Anglers United, Arizona Game and Fish Dept.
(AGFD), California Dept. of Fish and Game (CDFG), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and
Metropolitan Water District (MWD).

Through the improvement program, artificial habitats are being introduced into coves around the lake
to provide places for fish to spawn and hide. These habitat structures provide bottom cover and
diversity needed to maintain various fish species within the lake. Different structures are made up of
bundles of Christmas trees and brush limbs, PVC pipe covered in bright orange snow fencing and
plastic drainage pipe, to commercially developed plastic trees. All of which are anchored to the lake
bottom using cinder blocks. Forty-two coves are scheduled to be completed by the end of this
project in 2002.

Native fish management includes 7 isolated coves around the lake. These coves have


been set aside for biologists to raise the Bonytail Chub and the Razorback Suckers. Once

these fish have reached approximately 12 inches in size, they are tagged and released into the lake.
This project, however, represents the only ongoing reestablishment efforts for these fish in the
Colorado River Basin. The improvement program hopes to release 30,000 fish of each type by the
year 2003. The hope is that by releasing large populations into the lake, it will reduce the threat of
extinction of these native fish.

What's in Store

Overall, water quality is good. A continued effort to prevent water quality deterioration is necessary.
Water testing on the lake is done monthly by several agencies. MWD takes, at least, 40 water samples
throughout the lake for testing.


MTBE is the second most frequently detected volatile compound of 60 compounds measured. The
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that up to 20 million of the 50 million people (40 percent)
who get their drinking water from ground water in reformulated-gasoline and oxygenated-gasoline
(gasoline containing MTBE) areas use a water supply that is vulnerable to contamination.

On March 20, 2000 the Clinton administration decided to phase out MTBE on grounds that it poses a
risk to public health and/or the environment. The USEPA has also asked Congress for changes in the
Clean Air Act that will encourage the use of ethanol, an additive from corn, in place of MTBE.

The extent of future MTBE contamination is uncertain. In a report by the USGS, 31 states tested
shows an estimated 35% of community wells are located within a 1-kilometer radius of a leaking
underground storage tank. Even though not all of these tanks are leaking gasoline containing MTBE,
close the two-thirds may be.

The threat of MTBE to ground water sources will last for many years to come since it can remain in
ground water for many years and can travel considerable distances underground.

Ammonium Perchlorate

Ammonium perchlorate is also another problem. While no reliable data exists for its effects on various
soil, sediment or aquatic receptors, approaches looking into the effects on ecological receptors is
complicated by the lack of data on its environmental transport and transformation processes. What
data that does exist shows death was observed in


trout at 6000 -; 7000 ppm and effects on seed germination and growth of plants were reported
as low as 10 ppm.

Currently, there is no cost-effective treatment that can remove perchlorate from the ground, drinking
or surface water. Because it is nonvolatile and soluble in water, it cannot be removed by conventional
filtration, sedimentation or air stripping methods.

Radioactive Cleanup

A $300 million clean-up bill has been included in President Clinton's proposed federal budget
to move the mountain of radioactive mill tailings in Utah. Though not yet approved, it has received
bi-partisan support in Congress and is expected to pass with little debate. There is no start or
completion date set for this project. Meanwhile, it still is leaking into the Colorado River system.


The future for the native Bonytail and Razorback Chubs is grim. While the fisheries improvement
program is making an effort to save these fish from disappearing from Lake Havasu, this most likely
won't work. These native fish have evolved over many thousands of years. As noted above,
with the completion of the dam, their native habitat is gone and new predator species have been
introduced. They cannot adapt to these drastic changes so quickly, regardless of stocking efforts.


1. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Fourth Annual Report

2. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Colorado River Watershed Sanitary
3. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Colorado River Aqueduct News
    -; 1935 - 1940
4. The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe
5. Central Arizona Project
6. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality
7.  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
8.  U.S. Bureau of Land Management
9.  Anglers United10.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

11. University of Nevada, Reno, Biological Resources Research Center

12.  U.S. Geological Survey, National Water-Quality Assessment Program

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