The day we set the #ColoradoRiver free — Rowan Jacobsen


From Outside (Rowan Jacobsen). Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Honestly, nobody knew if it would make it to the sea. Nobody knew what would happen. Nothing like this had ever been tried before. And while scores of scientists from all over the world had descended on the delta to measure the effects on salinity, hydrology, biology, and every other factor they could think of, we were here to take the river’s pulse in an entirely different way. We were going to float it. Dead for decades, would it now feel like a glorified irrigation canal? Or, somewhere in the middle of it all, away from the cameras and piezometers, might we still summon the spirit of the Colorado? Forget the science; we were here for a séance.

Just below the dam, at least, the river truly looked reborn. All but one of Morelos’s 20 gates were wide open, and so much water was pouring down the channel that a lake had formed around the structure. Before a handful of perplexed onlookers, our ragged flotilla of river rats carried a couple of dented aluminum canoes and two inflatable paddleboards to the shores of the instant lake. The water would be sinking into the dry sand over every mile, but for now it was all systems go…

I tried to reconcile what I saw with Aldo Leopold’s description of the Colorado River delta in A Sand County Almanac, a towering text of the conservation movement. In 1922, Leopold and his brother paddled up the mouth of the river from the Gulf of California, camping along its braided channels and “deep emerald” waters. Leopold fell hard for the place. “The river was nowhere and everywhere,” he wrote, “for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf. So he traveled them all, and so did we. He divided and rejoined, he twisted and turned, he meandered in awesome jungles, he all but ran in circles, he dallied with lovely groves, he got lost and was glad of it, and so were we.”

The river Leopold found was a “milk-and-honey wilderness” filled with game “too abundant to hunt,” which Leopold chalked up to the innumerable seedpods hanging in every mesquite tree. “At each bend we saw egrets standing in the pools ahead, each white statue matched by its white reflection. Fleets of cormorants drove their black prows in quest of skittering mullets; avocets, willets, and yellow-legs dozed one-legged on the bars; mallards, widgeons, and teal sprang skyward in alarm.… When a troop of egrets settled on a far green willow, they looked like a premature snowstorm.”

There are few birds here now. Few walls of mesquite and willow. A classic case of unforeseen consequences. The delta gets about two inches of rain per year. It makes Kuwait look like a rainforest. But thanks to its great benefactor, it used to be the ecological jewel of the Southwest. Fed by snowmelt from the Rockies, the Colorado would leap out of its banks each spring to green the delta countryside for miles around. At two million acres, the Colorado River delta was half the size of the Mississippi River’s lower delta and, because it was an oasis in a vast desert, probably even more vital.

Of the hundreds of thousands of acres of riparian forests that once flourished on the lower Colorado, less than 2,000 acres of native willow and cottonwood remain. The rest has turned largely to tamarisk, a mangy, invasive shrub that is one of the only plants that can survive the salty sands of the modern delta. In jeopardy is the entire Pacific Flyway, that billion-bird artery stretching from Alaska to Patagonia, whose travelers must now make the 400-mile death-flap over the Sonoran Desert without food or respite.

Even today, few Americans grasp that the same river that carved Canyonlands and filled Lake Mead also kept Baja and Sonora alive. Back in the era of massive dam building, farmers and city planners were only too happy to see the wild Colorado transformed into a domesticated delivery system. Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexicali, and many more municipalities drink the Colorado every day…

On March 23, I’d stood with a crowd of 200 on the bank below Morelos Dam, gazing at the concrete monolith and waiting for the first gate to open. Beside me, Jennifer Pitt, the director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project, and Peter Culp, a Phoenix attorney and the go-to lawyer for Colorado River water issues, held their breath. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Pitt said. It was way back in 1998 when Pitt, who was already at EDF, and Culp, then a law student volunteering for the Sonoran Institute, first came up with a plan for how new water-sharing agreements could free up some flow for the delta.

For years the idea went nowhere. Mexico and the U.S. were battling over Mexico’s water supply, and by 2006 litigation was the preferred mode of communication. It took an earthquake to shake everyone into action. On Easter Sunday 2010, a 7.2-magnitude temblor destroyed much of Mexico’s canal system. The U.S. agreed to store some of Mexico’s water in Lake Mead on an emergency basis until Mexico could use it, and relations began to thaw. In November 2012, Minute 319, the latest amendment to the 1944 Water Treaty between the two countries, was signed. It allows Mexico, which has no large reservoirs of its own, to store future surplus water in Lake Mead in exchange for agreeing to share the burden of any future shortages. The U.S. agreed to invest in improvements to Mexico’s irrigation network, and part of the water saved from that was devoted to delta restoration. Mexico’s National Farmers Confederation objected to what it saw as a water grab by the U.S., and California’s Imperial Irrigation District and Los Angeles squabbled over each other’s role in the agreement, but their voices were drowned out by the deal’s environmental component, which made it a crowd-pleaser in both countries. As Pitt put it, “How could you not fix this problem? It’s so obvious. And it gets people on an emotional level. It’s just not right. Especially at the bottom of something as grand as the Colorado River.”

And with that, Gate 11 creaked open, a frothing mass of whitewater spilled out of the dam, and everybody went wild. Jennifer and Peter raised their fists in the air. Cameras clicked. Two drones whirred overhead. A sheet of water rushed over the marsh, simmering with escaping air bubbles, and licked our feet. Champagne corks popped. Jennifer doused Osvel. Osvel doused Francisco Zamora, director of the Sonoran Institute, who cried, “¡Hay agua!” And we all watched as a tendril nosed its way down the channel, hesitated in a pool, seemingly uncertain, then appeared to make up its mind as it spilled over the lip and ran downstream. If the water could make it 50 miles, it would reach the Laguna Grande restoration site, where tens of thousands of seedlings had been planted by Pronatura and the Sonoran Institute.

That was so easy, I said to Peter Culp. Just open the gates and let the water flow. Should happen every year. But Culp wondered if it would ever happen again. As part of Minute 319, EDF, the Sonoran Institute, and Pronatura had agreed to provide a 52,000-acre-foot base flow, to be delivered over five years, to keep the new trees alive. They were scrambling to purchase water rights from Mexican farmers, and they’d teamed up with the Nature Conservancy, the Redford Center, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in a Raise the River campaign to find the $10 million needed to do it. Even Will Ferrell and Kelly Slater lent a hand, shooting a mock PSA with Robert Redford in which they proposed that instead of raising the river, we should move the ocean.

But in 2017, the agreement must be renegotiated, and there is no guarantee that it will include water for the environment at all. With the Southwest projected to add another 20 million people in the next two decades and climate-change models predicting a 10 percent decline in the Colorado’s flow, finding extra water is getting harder. Frankly, the fact that it happened here in 2014 felt like a minor miracle. Right up until the moment when the first dam gate opened, I’d half expected black helicopters to swoop in and claim this precious resource for the city-state of Los Angeles…

Was the grand experiment worth it? To Sam, that depends on what happens next. “One pulse does not a living system make, but it does remind us that it is alive,” he wrote. Knowing that, do we let the river go back to its slumber, or do we raise it again? Annually? Permanently? Having seen the limitrophe wet and dry, having watched the dam open and close, I now understand more than ever that, at some level, it is simply a choice we get to make, and I have to believe that for anyone, Mexican or American, who got a taste of the delta in the spring of 2014, it’s an easy call. We’d found the bucking, ecstatic Colorado of old, right where we’d left it, romping through its old playgrounds like an oversize kid. For a few electric miles, it was in its element, and so were we. It tumbled into a hundred green lagoons, traveling them all, and so did we. It divided and rejoined, twisted and turned, meandered in awesome jungles, got lost and was glad of it, and so were we. It turned down long-forgotten paths, trying to find a graceful way forward, and so did we.

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