In October 2002, 55 resource managers, scientists, and environmentalists met in Tijuana to discuss the region’s plight. They calculated that restoring just 1 percent of the river’s annual flow could help the delta revive. Francisco Zamora, director of the Sonoran Institute’s Colorado River Delta Legacy Program, called their report “a map of the possible”—a listing of riparian areas that could be protected or restored.
Between March 23 and May 18, 2014, the gates at Morelos Dam opened to release 105,000 acre-feet of water for a spring pulse flow, which mimics the surge of snowmelt that occurs on undammed rivers. An additional 53,000 acre-feet would replenish the Colorado’s base flow during a five-year pilot program.
Together, this amount totals about 1 percent of the Colorado’s annual flow, spread out over a five-year pilot program. It was less than the scientists had recommended, but still a landmark moment: the first experimental release of water to the delta in history.
Scientists still have much to learn from the experiment about the intricate workings of the groundwater table, the needs of trees and birds and beavers. But it has already proven that we can design water policies to bend gracefully to environmental ethics in the decades ahead. Cities and farms can begin to look at ecosystems with new eyes: not as an intolerable competitor for water in an arid land, but as the provider of everything we will ever eat, drink, build, create, or imagine.
“There’s a railroad bridge a bit upstream from the Sonoran Institute’s restoration site,” says Karl Flessa, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona. “I’d love to see a park at the site. It wouldn’t take much water to increase the water level there, and there’s shade, something that’s important to that part of the world. It’s an optimal place for people to reconnect to their river. The whole idea about the delta restoration is that it’s not just about trees and birds and groundwater,” he added. “It’s really about the people.”