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Southwest flood managers get ready for rising Colorado

The water is still running high enough in this unlikely desert river - a few boat docks are underwater yet - to earn it a place among the world's longest floods.

It started last June, nearly nine months ago, when the reservoirs along the Colorado River were overwhelmed by late snow in the Rockies that melted too quickly under warm rains. It was the highest Rocky Mountain runoff in recorded history, and only now is the Colorado draining the last of it.

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Another unusually wet spring has been forecast this year, and the flood continues, somewhat by design.

Tame stuff compared to the rampages of the Colorado before it was harnessed, this mild flood has as much to do with policy and planning as the weather.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river and its 14 dams, is running the river at three times its normal winter flow, clearing enough storage room upstream in Lakes Powell and Mead to cope with the spring melt.

If the forecasts are correct, the high runoff won't be high enough to repeat last year's disaster. But spring flows may stay as high as they are - that is, at flood level - through the next couple of melting seasons.

Here on the Parker strip, a 16-mile stretch of meandering river under rocky desert bluffs below Parker Dam, resort owner Phil Younis maintains that there is no flood.

His point is that the water never rose above the officially sanctioned floodway here. The river damaged property here only because during 20 years of low water, river dwellers had built down into the floodway.

He points no fingers. Mr. Younis owns more resorts along the strip than anyone else, and the high water cost him $500,000 to repair boat docks, snack bars, and motor-home parks, raising the lowest onto safe ground.

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He also figures he lost $1 million in revenue last summer during the 10 weeks the river was closed to recreation. Now he is prepared, even for the 40,000 -cubic-foot-per-second flows of last summer.

Like many businessmen here, Younis is eager for the Los Angeles campers and water skiers to know that the ongoing ''flood'' has only improved the Colorado for boating.

Bill Verkamp, the local chief of emergency services on the Arizona side, concurs. The riverbank residents, he says, panicked as the water rose last summer, but could cope with the same levels in a second bout. ''The first time, there was a lot of fear.''

The Parker strip suffered the most serious property damage. Altogether, Arizona estimates that the flood cost $15 million in damage to public property, including Indian reservations and agricultural land, and $6 million in damage to individual property.

California officials, on the other bank, won't even venture an estimate until the river goes down and better measure of the damage can be taken.

The message he gets from state and county officials, says Col. Richard Colson , director of the Department of Emergency Services for Arizona, is not to spend this money again.

''The message is that if, for whatever reason, you get back into the (river) basin and get wet again, we're not going to bail you out.''

In Yuma, however, near the Mexican border, riverbank residents and farmers are having a different kind of flood problem, more complicated and more expensive to correct.

Because of high water in the river, groundwater in the area is not draining. Instead, it has saturated the ground clear to the surface, in places, fouling farmland with salts that concentrate at the water's topmost edge.

More urgently, there are 7,000 people in Yuma hooked up to septic tanks that won't leach in the sodden ground. In some cases, sewage water is coming to the surface.

Arizona will begin pumping groundwater over the dikes and into the river in April, but it will take some time for the ground to actually dry out, and as long as a decade for the salts to be leached out of the soil through irrigation.

''If the water keeps rising,'' Colonel Colson notes, ''they're going to be living in a paddy.''

These high waters have come as a surprise on the Colorado because from 1963 to 1980, while recreational growth on the river was growing tremendously, river flows were low and stable. Surplus runoffs went to the long task of filling Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.

The importance of the reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Meade downstream is the vast quantity of water they can store to carry the Southwest through the long droughts the region frequently faces.

The Bureau of Reclamation tries to keep just enough open storage space in the system to absorb the spring melt in the Rockies. The 6.6 million acre-feet of space the system had last April was not enough to handle the sudden deluge gracefully. This year, to be safe, the bureau will have at least 9 million acre-feet of space by April 1.

After this year's runoff season is over, representatives of the seven states in the Colorado River basin - California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nevada - will decide where they want to fix the balance between storing enough water for droughts and saving enough room to avoid future flooding.

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