New Hope for the Delta

During the worst drought in more than a century, the Colorado River may flow to the sea once more.

  • Mudflats in the Colorado River Delta, near the Sea of Cortez.

    Robert Campbell
  • Francisco Zamora, Colorado River Delta manager for the Sonoran Institute, yanks an errant salt cedar from the bank of a restored area in the Colorado River Delta.

    Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy
  • At a restoration site near Mexicali, local workers plant native trees and set up irrigation systems to help restore the Delta.

    Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy
  • Guadalupe Fonseca inside a nursery growing cottonwood seedlings in Carranza.

    Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy
  • The Ciénega de Santa Clara, formed when a canal (the straight line, top center) was dug to keep polluted wastewater from the Welton Mohawk Irrigation District in Arizona from flowing into the Colorado River. Now, it's the largest wetland in the Colorado River Delta.

    Ronald de Hommel
  • Alejandra Fonseca of Pronatura experiments to see how much water a square meter of riverbed can absorb, which will help determine how much water is needed to sustain small pockets of wetlands in the Colorado River Delta.

    Ronald de Hommel
  • A salt cedar-choked area of the Colorado River Delta before it was restored.

    The Sonoran Institute
  • The same area of the Colorado River Delta after it was restored and cleared salt cedars.

    Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy
 

Updated 1/17/14

Just outside the dusty Mexican town of Carranza, Francisco Zamora wheels his Toyota pickup off the highway and down a gravel road along an irrigation canal. To one side, irregular farm fields flash by, fringed with reeds, sunflowers and an occasional shaggy palm. On the other side lies the bone-dry bed of the Colorado River. Straitjacketed between two levees roughly a mile apart and choked with mean, gray-green tamarisk, or salt cedar, it nonetheless has an emphatic presence – like a prehistoric creature waiting to rumble back to life.

It's hard to imagine that, a century ago, wetlands and impenetrable cottonwood, willow and mesquite forests covered nearly 2 million acres here. After Aldo Leopold visited in 1922, he rhapsodized about the Delta's "hundred green lagoons," where the river twisted and split and braided together again before finally disappearing into the Gulf of California. Huge freshwater flows, powerful saltwater tides barreling up from the Gulf, and millions of tons of rich sediment converged to make the Delta an unlikely Eden on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. Home to more than 350 species of birds, it was a key part of the Pacific Flyway, a wild, immense and occasionally magical dreamscape prowled by jaguars and exploding with waterfowl.

But a series of big dams upstream gradually strangled the Delta. First came Hoover, in 1937. Just seven years later, Godfrey Sykes, an explorer and engineer who followed in Leopold's footsteps, likened the now-harnessed river to "a bird in a cage, or an animal in a zoo." In 1950, Mexico's Morelos Dam went into operation. And finally, in 1963, Glen Canyon Dam began impounding any leftover water to create Lake Powell.

Those formidable waterworks, along with the many smaller dams and diversions built throughout the Colorado's 224,000-square-mile drainage area, have transformed the river into a gigantic water-supply system for Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. The Delta, meanwhile, has shrunk to less than one-tenth of its original size; over the past 50 years, the river has only occasionally reached the sea. And the stranglehold has tightened over the past 14 years, as the river suffers through its worst drought in more than a century.

But even as the drought has dragged on, Zamora, who works for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Sonoran Institute, and compatriots from several other environmental organizations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, have patiently tended to the last 90 miles of the river. Zamora's field outfit – sunhat, nylon hiking pants, fly-fishing shirt and binoculars – is classic birdwatcher, and he speaks with thoughtful reserve. He and his colleagues have hired workers from nearby towns to plant a small network of native forests, nurturing them with small amounts of water purchased from local farmers.

"It's not easy, because it's not a lot of water," he says. "We've had to do the best we can."

But that's about to change.

Last November, after five years of remarkable negotiations that unfolded far from the Delta, representatives from the U.S. and Mexico agreed to a complex, multi-part water deal that will give them desperately needed flexibility for weathering the drought. More surprisingly, the two nations will join the team of environmental organizations to release a flood of more than 105,000 acre-feet of water – 3.8 million big-rig tankers' worth – into the Delta's ancient floodplain, and chase it with a smaller, permanent annual flow to sustain the ecosystem.

It is the unlikeliest of times to pull off a deal like this. Rather than hoarding all the water for themselves in this drought –– the river supplies some 35 million people –– the West's largest water agencies have pledged to send some all the way to the sea. That move is, to some extent, a long-overdue acknowledgment that the U.S. bears responsibility for the impacts its dams have caused beyond its borders. And after years of fruitless court fights in the U.S. by environmental groups, the Mexican government finally insisted that water for the Delta be a cornerstone of the broader deal.

"This wasn't just an afterthought," says a U.S. negotiator. "This was integral to the negotiations."

But Delta restoration is still far from assured. If the drought deepens, as many fear it will, the surprising alliances that led to the deal will be tested as never before. The Delta's champions are anxiously racing against time and the drought to lay the groundwork for what they hope will become a permanent commitment to restoration, before the window to return water to the Delta closes – perhaps forever.

"It has been," Zamora says, "a pretty busy summer."

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor of Native Americans and the News Media The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is...
  • AWF seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • The Southwest Communications Director will be responsible for working with field staff in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to develop and execute detailed communication plans...
  • An intentional community designed for aging in place. Green built with Pumice-crete construction (R32), bamboo flooring, pine doors, T&G ceiling with fans, and maintenance free...
  • (CFROG) is a Ventura County, CA based watch-dog and advocacy non-profit organization. cfrog.org
  • Take your journalism skills to the next level and deepen your understanding of environmental issues by applying for the 2019-2020 Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental...
  • WINTER WILDLANDS ALLIANCE POSITION ANNOUNCEMENT: EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks an experienced and highly motivated individual to lead and manage the organization as Executive...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association is seeking a visionary leader to spearhead its public lands stewardship program in southwest Colorado. For a detailed job description...
  • The Cascade Forest Conservancy seeks a passionate ED to lead our forest protection, conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
  • Mountain Pursuit is a new, bold, innovative, western states, hunting advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming. We need a courageous, hard working, passionate Executive Director...
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for the Willis McDonald, IV...
  • Couple seeks quiet, private, off-grid acreage in area with no/low cell phone service and no/low snowfall. Conservation/bordering public lands a plus. CA, OR, WA, ID,...
  • 20mi N of Steamboat Springs, majestic views, aspen forest, year-round access, yurt, septic, solar electric, seasonal ponds, no covenants, bordering National Forest. Ag status. $449K....
  • Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions: Communications & Development Manager/Director (remote work possible) and a Deputy Director...
  • Former northern Sierra winery, with 2208 sq.ft. commercial building, big lot, room to expand.
  • The dZi Foundation is seeking a FT Communications Associate with a passion for Nepal to join our team in Ridgway, Colorado. Visit dzi.org/careers.
  • Available now for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojaidigital.net.
  • Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.