Water from the Virgin River has given life and prosperity to humans in a brutally harsh environment for centuries. But the river has also taken it away.

"The fight against the river was as certain as death," wrote Andrew K. Larsen in a publication entitled "Agriculture Pioneering in the Virgin River Basin."Larsen described in a nutshell mankind's continuing experience with the Virgin River - a river of alternative floods and droughts. Man has tried to tame the Virgin River hundreds of times. And failed.

Attempts to harness its resources, have only been met with repeated frustration, if not disaster.

The latest failure came Sunday when an earthen dike on the Quail Creek Reservoir collapsed, sending thousands of acre-feet of water cascading down the Virgin River's usually dry bed. Hundreds of farm animals were swept away, and farms, homes and business were inundated in reddish silt.

No one was killed, but the dike - the latest multimillion-dollar jewel of southern Utah's attempt to harness the river's resources - was breached. People will undoubtedly rebuild; as has always been done along this river.

In fact, surviving the unpredictable river has been a part of life in southern Utah as long as written rec-ords have been kept. The original Mormon pioneers of St. George had not even finished unpacking when the river flooded them out of their covered wagons parked along the river.

The Virgin River looks peaceful enough as it slowly twists and turns its way through the majestic canyons of Zion National Park and the coral-pink sand formations of southwestern Utah, making its way through Arizona before dumping into Lake Mead in Nevada.

During most times of the year, it is small enough a child can wade in it.

But torrential summer rainstorms frequently swell the river to incredible proportions. And the river takes no prisoners as it sweeps away animals, roads, dams and livelihoods. And occasionally people.

But just as the river spells disaster, it also has meant life for thousands of years. The Anasazi culture thrived along the Virgin River from about the time of Christ to 1300 A.D. when they disappeared.

Ruins of their once-thriving culture can still be found along the hills and benches overlooking the river. The Anasazi learned to farm the valleys, but never to live there.

The white man did not arrive in southwestern Utah until the late 1850s when a few hearty pioneers were sent by Brigham Young to explore the region. They tested the land for growing cotton and peanuts, among other things.

The success of those cotton-raising experiences prompted Mormon Church authorities in 1861 to undertake large-scale colonization of extreme southern Utah.

Early pioneer Orson Huntsman remarked, "I believe we were close to hell, for Dixie is the hottest place I was ever in."

A poet of those times wrote, "The wind like fury here does blow that when we plant or sow, sir, we place one foot upon the seed and hold it till it grows, sir."

The pioneers' survival was based upon their ability to dam and divert the Virgin River to irrigate crops. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. As more and more people came, the further up and down the river valley they settled.

Early Mormon pioneer Nephi Johnson is said to be the first Anglo to see the upper Virgin River area in 1858. The first settlement in the area was several miles upstream from the present site of Springdale.

Joseph S. Black, one of the first settlers, enthusiastically tried to describe to his friends the beauty of the canyons carved by the Virgin River, earning the canyon the moniker of "Joseph's Glory."

But of those first 20 families to homestead at the mouth of Zion, only a few remained. Indian wars and the unpredictable river drove most away. Malaria forced pioneers to move their settlement away from the river banks and into the foothills.

But even there they were not totally safe. Sudden storms sent the Virgin River cascading over its banks, tearing down fences, drowning cattle and leaving boulders in the silt-covered fields.

The town of Virgin, originally called Pocketville, was settled in the early 1860s and got its present name in 1868. Heavy rains and floods in the early 1860s destroyed the town's irrigation canal.

When Virgin residents decided to rebuild, the task was given to one Chapman Duncan. When Duncan finished the project, townspeople discovered the new canals were running uphill.

Duncan left town in a hurry, and a community called Duncan's Retreat was started about a mile and a half upstream.

Even today, the heavy summer thunderstorms that carry away the topsoil and cut deep ravines in the sandy topography are as common as golf carts on the St. George Country Club. Scars on canyon walls indicate this process has been a part of the geography for millions of years.

But what the river itself could not accomplish through the forces of nature, federal regulations have done over the years. In the 1970s, the Virgin River was caught in a swirl of controversy over the woundfin minnow.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Virgin River from Lake Mead in Nevada to Hurricane near the Quail Creek Reservoir as critical habitat for the woundfin minnow. The fish used to be found in the Salt and Gila rivers of Arizona, but irrigation and water development on those rivers resulted in the disappearance of the woundfin minnow from those waters in the early 1900s.

Water development on the Virgin River could jeopardize the only remaining habitat of the woundfin, the government said.

Quail Creek was completed in 1984 as a compromise between the state and federal government.