In Colorado, a devastating drought drags on since last summer. Water levels in the state’s largest body of water dropped. By January, long-time residents near the Blue Mesa Reservoir could walk among the remains of the town they once called home.
Bob Robbins, 69, and Bill Sunderlin, 78, describe the original town of Iola to people who never knew it existed before the drought. As the water recedes, foundations, fence lines, and corroded remains of farm life reappear despite being completely submerged for most of the last 53 years.
Both men grew up among the ranching families near the Gunnison River—the fifth largest tributary of the great Colorado River. Both men’s families lost their homes to the Colorado River Storage Project. A dam on the Gunnison created the Blue Mesa Reservoir here in 1966. Its purpose was to control flooding, create water storage, and generate hydroelectric power. Those are all good things. But not for those who once populated Iola and two other towns that were also sacrificed for the project.
The people who lived in and around Iola then are mostly gone. Robbins shares his memories with visitors or journalists so that the past won’t be forgotten. But if it weren’t for passing on historical knowledge, he’d rather not discuss it much. “It’s very painful,” he says. He remembers his mother crying when their house was burned before the man-made flood covered the ashes.
The number of people displaced by the water project is uncertain. David Primus of Western Colorado University researches life before the reservoir. He estimates that between 200 and 300 residents had to relocate.
“Put it this way,” Sunderlin says, “it wasn’t enough to fight the government.”
The prospect of hydroelectricity and water storage appealed to many who wanted cheap electricity.
“But for those 200, 300 people, they lost their livelihoods, often times lost ranches that had been in the family for four generations,” says Primus.
In our imperfect world, sometimes the greater community is valued more than the individual. People make hard decisions. Some get harmed while others are helped. Only God who is “the first and the last and the living one” (Revelation 1:17-18) is able perfectly to meet the needs of both at the same time.
In addition to ranching, Iola provided local jobs for two other reasons: In 1881, the railroad arrived. Iola became a pivotal stop for loading cattle on their way to market. And sportsmen came for some of the best fishing in the west before the river was dammed. Famous actor John Wayne and former U.S. President Herbert Hoover were repeat visitors.
But all that washed away with the water project construction.