Something about the Colorado River attracts the madcaps among engineers. Recently the Bureau of Land Management decided that not enough rainfall was finding its way into the lower river. The solution adopted was to waterproof "the earth in order to increase runoff and cut down on seepage. The material used was paraffin, the same that seals the top of homemade jars of jam or jelly. The paraffin was sprayed onto the ground during a hot day from a tank mounted on a two-wheel trailer, much like roofers' tar pots." (The bureau's publicity people will say only that it is still "experimenting" with the technique -- a locution that smacks of failure.)

Then there is the proposal -- never acted upon but never abandoned, either -- to augment the river's flow by piping in water from the Columbia, some 700 miles to the north. The rankest chimera of all, however, was probably that of the 19th-century engineer Robert Brewster Stanton: a railroad through the Grand Canyon. He got so far as to lead an inspection trip down the lower river. "It was a disastrous trip, with three persons, including the president of the railroad company, being drowned along the way. Incredible, after traveling through those remote, convoluted canyons Stanton found the route feasible."

But while loners have been dreaming dreams that put Walt Disney's Gyro Gear-loose to shame, other, more clubbable men have been quietly fitting colossal dams into the river, with costs to all taxpayers and benefits for the residents of a few states. The aggregate of these chummy projects is such that "more water is exported from the Colorado River watershed than from any other river basin in the country. The complex of dams, reservoirs, tunnels, and canals spreading out from the Colorado River system to embrace much of the West has become the most complicated plumbing system in the world." Philip Fradkin's purpose in writing this fascinating book is to widen the debate over the use of the Colorado beyond the interbred specialists and politicians who have transformed the modern west into a Boom Belt with little regard for the finitude of water.

Fradkin cities a surprising fact about the end for which much of this resource is used. Dammed Colorado water generates electricity and diverted Colorado water irrigates fields of growing vegetables, but neither of these has been the paramount purpose for harnessing the river. "Simply put and not often emphasized, no other activity uses so much land area in the West, or for that matter in the entire nation, as cows eating grass. This is to satisfy the nation's hunger for red meat. Percapita beef consumption was expected to hit 150 pounds in the year 2000, nearly half a pound per day for every citizen . . . No other single activity or combination of activities has contributed more toward altering the shape and testure of western lands, or the wildlife that is dependent upon them. Nor does any other activity consume more water." In the last few years, however, unexpected and voracious demands for Colorado water have been lodged by the promoters of new-wave energy projects centered on the likes of oil shale and tar sands.

Though Fradkin must be counted in the environmentalist camp (he has been western field editor of Audubon magazine), he is detached enough to upbrade his peers for opposing virtually every power plant under construction, as if they really supposed the westward drift of population could be thwarted. Fradkin would transfer to industrial and municipal uses much of the water currently allotted to agriculture, but he fears that agribusiness interests will be able to stymie the requisite changes in law. He believes, therefore, that a major western water crisis is all but enevitable.

For all of his scolarship and advocacy, Fradkin is also in love with the Colorado, and he paddled or walked along most of its 1,700 miles in researching this book. He traces the river to its source in the Wyoming mountains. (Fradkin considers the Green River, not the so-called upper Colorado in Rocky Mountain National Park, to be the main stem of the fledgling river.) And he follows it to its ignoble end in a canal several miles shy of its historic outlet into the Gulf of California. Assimilating scores of colorful tributary anecdotes, yet maintaining a clear forward thrust, the book itself takes on the form of a variegated, wonderful river.