Water in the Desert

("Arkansas River" by Nora Bushong Larimer)

Not all trout rivers are in decline.

[by Miles Nolte]

I FOUND THE ARKANSAS RIVER WHEN I WAS BARELY OLD ENOUGH TO DRINK. All these years later, the details are hazy: a heartbreak, a road trip, seeking solace in the mountains, scanning a map, remembering an invitation.

Kristen, a friend from college, worked summers as a white-water rafting guide in Colorado. I called her from a gas station pay phone after a week or two of state lines, interstates, county roads, two-tracks, and bootlaced forays into the woods.

The evening caddis hatch was so thick, and the fish so eager, that the trout fought over our flies.

The town was small and dusty, exposed in a mountainous basin. It seemed vulnerable to incursion, Mongols maybe. Arthritic piñon pines hunched at chaotic intervals along the road. Rock and grass thrust up toward a cloudless sky; the outlines of ridges danced on the hot August horizon.

Kristin and her gaggle of raft guides hosted me for two days. During working hours, I stowed away among the tourists, bounced through white water, and listened to stories and jokes showing wear after a season of daily use.

In the evening, we returned to the river, strapped oar frames to boats, and piled the inflatable floors with cans of beer: cold rivers make good refrigerators. Someone donned a wetsuit and flippers, grabbed a boogie board, and hooted when she hit the water.

Then the fly rods came out. The evening caddis hatch was so thick, and the fish so eager, that the trout fought over our flies. There were fish in every slick, around every boulder, feasting in every tailout. I was awestruck. Despite all the bass, bluegills, and pike I’d caught on a fly rod, these were my first trout. I know now how impressive the numbers of fish were. I also know enough now to find it odd that no one caught a single fish over 12 inches.

NEARLY 20 YEARS PASSED BEFORE I SAW THE ARKANSAS RIVER AGAIN. What I found was surprising and, perhaps, even hopeful. My initial impression of the valley was apt: the mountains hadn’t done a very good job protecting against incursion. Though, if longtime locals are to be believed, it wasn’t Mongols but Californians who’d invaded. The small, dusty towns that dot the river’s corridor have sprawled. Pastel stucco sprouts far faster than the gnarled trees that still lean into the winds.

Much has changed, but not only in the ways one might expect. I’ll spoil the suspense here: despite a population explosion and continued competition for limited water in a high-mountain desert, the trout fishing on the Arkansas River has gotten better. The fish numbers are still high, but now they grow well beyond a foot long. This river is an outlier. It represents a rare strengthening swimmer among a school of declining American fisheries.

For generations, the Arkansas was defined by industrial utility. Mid-19th-century mines at the headwaters drained slurry and waste. As the economy of Colorado shifted toward agriculture, the water went to crops and cattle, but there wasn’t enough. Farmers and ranchers on the fertile, though arid, Eastern Plains of the Rockies coveted the plentiful moisture on the west side. By the mid-1980s, a series of transmountain water-diversion projects tunneled through the mountains, increasing the flow of the Arkansas by more than 30 percent. The river fills Pueblo Reservoir, which feeds many of the fields of eastern Colorado.

With more water came more people. Settlements expanded into towns. But in the middle of the 20th century, the Arkansas had little identity as a river. The derelict mines upstream continued to seep cadmium, copper, zinc, and mercury in such quantities that the upper reaches were lifeless. The lower river had good numbers of fish, but they couldn’t live beyond four years. Supposedly, the stretches near towns actually did have some big fish in them, but only because the sewage leaking from septic fields trapped some of the heavy metals in the substrate. When the state implemented sewage regulations, even those few big fish disappeared.