A River’s Return: Restoring the Colorado River delta

[Thanks to decades of broken promises the United States made to Mexico regarding water supply] the Colorado River has reached its delta in the Gulf of California only intermittently since the 1960s, the last time during the wet El Niño winter of 1997-98. Much fodder for despair has been found in the lower Colorado, labeled “utterly devoid of vitality” by Philip Fradkin in his 1981 book A River No More. But the river still has champions.

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.

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