To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act, and to provide a historical lens on several high-profile water projects currently underway, join us to hear the story of the EPA’s 1990 veto of one of the largest water projects in Colorado history, and how the Denver metro area has moved forward in the aftermath of the project’s demise.
Following a continental breakfast, the agenda will feature two panel discussions, focusing first on the events leading up to the veto of Two Forks, and then following up with an exploration of what has transpired in the years since that have laid the groundwork for Denver and the surrounding suburbs’ evolving approach to providing water to growing communities in an era of increasing water scarcity.
This is an event any Coloradan who cares about water should attend! All attendees will also receive free admission to History Colorado’s Living West exhibit for the day.
Discounted pricing and a limited number of scholarships are available for students. Discounts are also available for members of Water Education Colorado, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and the History Colorado Center. A small number of student scholarship are available. Please contact Nona for more information.
Read more in the draft agenda, and don’t wait to register. Seats will go quickly and registration closes February 28.
Sponsorship opportunities are still available. Learn more here.
Although only light precipitation fell last week, and 30-day totals generally range from 0.5 to 1.5 inches, rainfall for several months now has been generally above normal, with totals so far this water year considerably above normal, much of which has fallen as snow in the past few months. Significant dryness now exists only on time scales exceeding one year. For these reasons, all abnormal dryness was removed from South Dakota and southwestern North Dakota. Improvement is lagging somewhat farther to the north, where D0 was left in place. Farther west, wet-season precipitation continued to outpace normal in most of central and western Colorado and adjacent southern Wyoming. Widespread above-normal mountain snowpack covers most areas. Conditions have now improved enough to finally remove the lingering D4 area in south-central Colorado, and improve the northern fringes of the D3 and D2 areas in western Colorado. Deteriorating conditions were limited to north-central Wyoming, where subnormal precipitation over the past several months prompted D0 expansion into the region; but even here, mountain snowpack was generally near to slightly above normal…
Potent storms tracked through the West Coast States this past week, pushing year-to-date precipitation totals above 6 inches in most of a broad region that includes areas along and west of the Cascades, the California coastline, the Sierra Nevada, and the Sacramento Valley. A few spots in the central and northern Sierra Nevada recorded over 30 inches of precipitation since the beginning of the year. Storms this past week were unusually cold and wet, dropping over 17 inches snow on Seattle in four days. Combined with snowfall earlier in the month, the first half of February brought 20.2 inches of snow officially to Seattle, more than 50 of the past 54 reported full-winter snowfall totals there. Farther south, up to 60 inches of snow piled up in the Sierra Nevada, and the continued abundant precipitation prompted more improvement in the Drought Monitor. The westward extent of D1 and D2 was decreased in western Oregon, and all dryness was removed from west-central California, including the Bay Area and vicinity. Other areas notably benefiting from the surplus precipitation and abundant mountain snowpack were in north-central Utah (where D2 coverage declined), and across north-central Arizona and adjacent southern Utah (where improvements resulted from D1 and D2 areas being retracted eastward)…
Little or no precipitation fell again this week on the southern High Plains, prompting broad D0 and more limited D1 expansion across the Texas Panhandle into adjacent Oklahoma, west-central Texas, part of the Big Bend, and the southwestern tier of Texas as far north as Sutton and Kimble Counties. Over the last four weeks, only about 0.1 inch of precipitation has fallen on much of the dry area from the northern Big Bend into the Texas Panhandle and adjacent Oklahoma, with the wetter spots recording up to 0.25 inch. Farther south, four-week totals of 0.25 to locally approaching an inch covered the southern Big Bend and upper southwestern Texas near the Rio Grande River. South-central and Deep South Texas received 0.5 to over an inch. The dry weather allowed for enhanced chances of significant wildfire activity in the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma.
Parts of Louisiana and small areas of adjacent Mississippi have dried out over the past 30 to 60 days. Dry weather has been most acute for the past 30 days from south-central Louisiana up into the coastal plain north of the Delta. Meanwhile, the last two months as a whole have been driest in southeastern parts of the state. D0 has been introduced in both of these regions even though time scales beyond a few months are markedly wet statewide…
During the next 5 days (February 14-18, 2019) a large storm system is expected to bring another round of heavy precipitation to the Far West. At least 2 inches are expected in a broad area from the central Oregon coast and Cascades southward through both the higher elevations and coastal areas of California, plus much of the Sacramento Valley. More than 6 inches are forecast in much of northwestern California, and even higher amounts (7 to locally 15 inches) are expected throughout the higher windward elevations of the Sierra Nevada. Farther east, 1.5 to locally over 3.0 inches of precipitation are forecast for the higher elevations of central and southeastern Idaho, west-central Wyoming, southwestern and north-central Utah, western Colorado, and central Arizona, with highest amounts most likely in north-central Utah and adjacent areas. The remaining areas from the Rockies westward should see anywhere from 1.5 inches to just a few tenths of an inch (amounts generally increase with elevation). In the Nation’s mid-section, not much precipitation (a few hundredths to under 0.2 inch) is anticipated in the dry areas of northern North Dakota and Minnesota, and even less is forecast for areas of dryness and drought in southern Texas and the southern High Plains (most areas precipitation-free with small, isolated spots getting up to a few hundredths of an inch). Moderate rains of 0.5 to near 1.5 inches are expected in the dry areas in southeastern Florida.
Meanwhile, the Dakotas and most of Montana can expect much colder than normal conditions. Temperatures should average at least 10°F below normal there, with daily high temperatures 21°F to 27°F below typical seasonal values. A broad area is expected to see daytime highs at least 3°F below normal, from the Great Lakes and northern Ohio Valley westward through the central and northern Plains and all areas from the Rockies westward. Nighttime readings, on the other hand, should remain near or a little above normal outside the northern half of the Plains and northern Rockies. To the south and east, above-normal temperatures should prevail. Five-day average departures of +5°F to near +10°F are expected to cover most of Texas, the central Gulf Coast, most of the Southeast, portions of Florida, and the southern mid-Atlantic region.
According to the 6- to 10-day forecasts from the Climate Prediction Center, February 19-23, 2019 will bring enhanced chances for surplus precipitation to most of the Nation. Odds tilt toward dryness only in Maine and northwestern California, and neither precipitation extreme is favored in the central West Coast States, part of the northern Rockies, most of the Great Lakes region, northern New England, and the southern Florida Peninsula. Wet weather is favored elsewhere, with the highest chances (70 percent, compared to a climatological freqiemcu of 33.3 percent) in the Carolinas, northern Georgia, and adjacent areas. The Southeast is also expected to average warmer than normal, with odds exceeding 80 percent in the central and northern Florida Peninsula. A much larger proportion of the country has enhanced chances for subnormal temperatures, specifically across the Northeast, the Great Lakes, and from the Plains westward to the Pacific Ocean. Odds for colder than normal weather reach 90 percent in a large part of the interior West from eastern sections of the West Coast States through roughly the northwestern two-thirds of the Rockies. Like most other parts of the country, odds favor cooler and wetter than normal conditions, though with less extreme chances.
Here’s the one week change map from the US Drought Monitor.
“I really don’t like their policies of taking away your car, taking away your airplane flights, of ‘let’s hop a train to California,’ or ‘you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!’”
So bellowed President Donald Trump in El Paso, Texas, his first campaign-style salvo against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey’s Green New Deal resolution. There will surely be many more.
It’s worth marking the moment. Because those could be the famous last words of a one-term president, having wildly underestimated the public appetite for transformative action on the triple crises of our time: imminent ecological unraveling, gaping economic inequality (including the racial and gender wealth divide), and surging white supremacy.
Or they could be the epitaph for a habitable climate, with Trump’s lies and scare tactics succeeding in trampling this desperately needed framework. That could either help win him re-election, or land us with a timid Democrat in the White House with neither the courage nor the democratic mandate for this kind of deep change. Either scenario means blowing the handful of years left to roll out the transformations required to keep temperatures below catastrophic levels.
Back in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report informing us that global emissions need to be slashed in half in less than 12 years, a target that simply cannot be met without the world’s largest economy playing a game-changing leadership role. If there is a new administration ready to leap into that role in January 2021, meeting those targets would still be extraordinarily difficult, but it would be technically possible — especially if large cities and states like California and New York escalate their ambitions right now. Losing another four years to a Republican or a corporate Democrat, and starting in 2026 is, quite simply, a joke.
So either Trump is right and the Green New Deal is a losing political issue, one he can smear out of existence. Or he is wrong and a candidate who makes the Green New Deal the centerpiece of their platform will take the Democratic primary and then kick Trump’s ass in the general, with a clear democratic mandate to introduce wartime-levels of investment to battle our triple crises from day one. That would very likely inspire the rest of the world to finally follow suit on bold climate policy, giving us all a fighting chance.
Those are the stark options before us. And which outcome we end up with depends on the actions taken by social movements in the next two years. Because these are not questions that will be settled through elections alone. At their core, they are about building political power — enough to change the calculus of what is possible.
That was the lesson of the original New Deal, one we would be wise to remember right now.
Ocasio-Cortez chose to model the Green New Deal after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic raft of programs understanding full well that a central task is to make sure that this mobilization does not repeat the ways in which its namesake excluded and further marginalized many vulnerable groups. For instance, New Deal-era programs and protections left out agricultural and domestic workers (many of them black), Mexican immigrants (some 1 million of whom faced deportation in the 1930s), and Indigenous people (who won some gains but whose land rights were also violated by both massive infrastructure projects and some conservation efforts).
Indeed, the resolution calls for these and other violations to be actively redressed, listing as one of its core goals “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
I have written before about why the old New Deal, despite its failings, remains a useful touchstone for the kind of sweeping climate mobilization that is our only hope of lowering emissions in time. In large part, this is because there are so few historical precedents we can look to (other than top-down military mobilizations) that show how every sector of life, from forestry to education to the arts to housing to electrification, can be transformed under the umbrella of a single, society-wide mission.
Which is why it is so critical to remember that none of it would have happened without massive pressure from social movements. FDR rolled out the New Deal in the midst of a historic wave of labor unrest: There was the Teamsters’ rebellion and Minneapolis general strike in 1934, the 83-day shutdown of the West Coast by longshore workers that same year, and the Flint sit-down autoworkers strikes in 1936 and 1937. During this same period, mass movements, responding to the suffering of the Great Depression, demanded sweeping social programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, while socialists argued that abandoned factories should be handed over to their workers and turned into cooperatives. Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of “The Jungle,” ran for governor of California in 1934 on a platform arguing that the key to ending poverty was full state funding of workers’ cooperatives. He received nearly 900,000 votes, but having been viciously attacked by the right and undercut by the Democratic establishment, he fell just short of winning the governor’s office.
All of this is a reminder that the New Deal was adopted by Roosevelt at a time of such progressive and left militancy that its programs — which seem radical by today’s standards — appeared at the time to be the only way to hold back a full-scale revolution.
It’s also a reminder that the New Deal was a process as much as a project, one that was constantly changing and expanding in response to social pressure from both the right and the left. For example, a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps started with 200,000 workers, but when it proved popular eventually expanded to 2 million. That’s why the fact that there are weaknesses in Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s resolution — and there are a few — is far less compelling than the fact that it gets so much exactly right. There is plenty of time to improve and correct a Green New Deal once it starts rolling out (it needs to be more explicit about keeping carbon in the ground, for instance, and about nuclear and coal never being “clean”). But we have only one chance to get this thing charged up and moving forward.
The more sobering lesson is that the kind of mass power that delivered the victories of the New Deal era is far beyond anything possessed by current progressive movements, even if they all combined efforts. That’s why it is so urgent to use the Green New Deal framework as a potent tool to build that power — a vision to both unite movements and dramatically expand them.
Part of that involves turning what is being derided as a left-wing “laundry list” or “wish list” into an irresistible story of the future, connecting the dots between the many parts of daily life that stand to be transformed — from health care to employment, day care to jail cell, clean air to leisure time.
Right now, the Green New Deal reads like a list because House resolutions have to be formatted as lists — lettered and numbered sequences of “whereases” and “resolveds.” It’s also being characterized as an unrelated grab bag because most of us have been trained to avoid a systemic and historical analysis of capitalism and to divide pretty much every crisis our system produces — from economic inequality to violence against women to white supremacy to unending wars to ecological unraveling — in walled-off silos. From within that rigid mindset, it’s easy to dismiss a sweeping and intersectional vision like the Green New Deal as a green-tinted “laundry list” of everything the left has ever wanted.
Now that the resolution is out there, however, the onus is on all of us who support it to help make the case for how our overlapping crises are indeed inextricably linked — and can only be overcome with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation. This is already beginning to happen. For example, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who is heading up policy for a new think tank largely focused on the Green New Deal, recently pointed out that just as thousands of people moved for jobs during the World War II-era economic mobilization, we should expect a great many to move again to be part of a renewables revolution. And when they do, “unlinking employment from health care means people can move for better jobs, to escape the worst effects of climate, AND re-enter the labor mkt without losing” (her whole Twitter thread is worth reading).
Investing big in public health care is also critical in light of the fact that no matter how fast we move to lower emissions, it is going to get hotter and storms are going to get fiercer. When those storms bash up against health care systems and electricity grids that have been starved by decades of austerity, thousands pay the price with their lives, as they so tragically did in post-Maria Puerto Rico.
And there are many more connections to be drawn. Those complaining about climate policy being weighed down by supposedly unrelated demands for access to health care and education would do well to remember that the caring professions — most of them dominated by women — are relatively low carbon and can be made even more so. In other words, they deserve to be seen as “green jobs,” with the same protections, the same investments, and the same living wages as male-dominated workforces in the renewables, efficiency, and public-transit sectors. Meanwhile, as Gunn-Wright points out, to make those sectors less male-dominated, family leave and pay equity are a must, which is part of the reason both are included in the resolution.
Drawing out these connections in ways that capture the public imagination will take a massive exercise in participatory democracy. A first step is for every sector touched by the Green New Deal — hospitals, schools, universities, and more — to make their own plans for how to rapidly decarbonize while furthering the Green New Deal’s mission to eliminate poverty, create good jobs, and close the racial and gender wealth divides.
My favorite example of what this could look like comes from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which has developed a bold plan to turn every post office in Canada into a hub for a just green transition. Think solar panels on the roof, charging stations out front, a fleet of domestically manufactured electric vehicles from which union members don’t just deliver mail, but also local produce and medicine, and check in on seniors — all supported by the proceeds of postal banking.
To make the case for a Green New Deal — which explicitly calls for this kind of democratic, decentralized leadership — every sector in the United States should be developing similar visionary plans for their workplaces right now. And if that doesn’t motivate their members to rush the polls come 2020, I don’t know what will.
We have been trained to see our issues in silos; they never belonged there. In fact, the impact of climate change on every part of our lives is far too expansive and extensive to begin to cover here. But I do need to mention a few more glaring links that many are missing.
A job guarantee, far from an opportunistic socialist addendum, is a critical part of achieving a rapid and just transition. It would immediately lower the intense pressure on workers to take the kinds of jobs that destabilize our planet because all would be free to take the time needed to retrain and find work in one of the many sectors that will be dramatically expanding.
This in turn will reduce the power of bad actors like the Laborers’ International Union of North America who are determined to split the labor movement and sabotage the prospects for this historic effort. Right out of the gate, LIUNA came out swinging against the Green New Deal. Never mind that it contains stronger protections for trade unions and the right to organize than anything we have seen out of Washington in three decades, including the right of workers in high-carbon sectors to democratically participate in their transition and to have jobs in clean sectors at the same salary and benefits levels as before.
There is absolutely no rational reason for a union representing construction workers to oppose what would be the biggest infrastructure project in a century, unless LIUNA actually is what it appears to be: a fossil fuel astroturf group disguised as a trade union, or at best a company union. These are the same labor leaders, let us recall, who sided with the tanks and attack dogs at Standing Rock; who fought relentlessly for the construction of the planet-destabilizing Keystone XL pipeline; and who (along with several other building trade union heads) aligned themselves with Trump on his first day in office, smiling for a White House photo op and declaring his inauguration “a great moment for working men and women.”
LIUNA’s leaders have loudly demanded unquestioning “solidarity” from the rest of the trade union movement. But again and again, they have offered nothing but the narrowest self-interest in return, indifferent to the suffering of immigrant workers whose lives are being torn apart under Trump and to the Indigenous workers who saw their homeland turned into a war zone. The time has come for the rest of the labor movement to confront and isolate them before they can do more damage. That could take the form of LIUNA members, confident that the Green New Deal will not leave them behind, voting out their pro-boss leaders. Or it could end with LIUNA being tossed out of the AFL-CIO for planetary malpractice.
The more unionized sectors like teaching, nursing, and manufacturing make the Green New Deal their own by showing how it can transform their workplaces for the better, and the more all union leaders embrace the growth in membership they would see under the Green New Deal, the stronger they will be for this unavoidable confrontation.
One last connection I will mention has to do with the concept of “repair.” The resolution calls for creating well-paying jobs “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems,” as well as “cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites, ensuring economic development and sustainability on those sites.”
There are many such sites across the United States, entire landscapes that have been left to waste after they were no longer useful to frackers, miners, and drillers. It’s a lot like how this culture treats people. It’s what has been done to so many workers in the neoliberal period, using them up and then abandoning them to addiction and despair. It’s what the entire carceral state is about: locking up huge sectors of the population who are more economically useful as prison laborers and numbers on the spreadsheet of a private prison than they are as free workers. And the old New Deal did it too, by choosing to exclude and discard so many black and brown and women workers.
There is a grand story to be told here about the duty to repair — to repair our relationship with the earth and with one another, to heal the deep wounds dating back to the founding of the country. Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mindset — a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview, a transformation from “gig and dig” to an ethos of care and repair.
If these kinds of deeper connections between fractured people and a fast-warming planet seem far beyond the scope of policymakers, it’s worth thinking back to the absolutely central role of artists during the New Deal era. Playwrights, photographers, muralists, and novelists were all part of a renaissance of both realist and utopian art. Some held up a mirror to the wrenching misery that the New Deal sought to alleviate. Others opened up spaces for Depression-ravaged people to imagine a world beyond that misery. Both helped get the job done in ways that are impossible to quantify.
In a similar vein, there is much to learn from Indigenous-led movements in Bolivia and Ecuador that have placed at the center of their calls for ecological transformation the concept of buen vivir, a focus on the right to a good life as opposed to more and more and more life of endless consumption, an ethos that is so ably embodied by the current resident of the White House.
The Green New Deal will need to be subject to constant vigilance and pressure from experts who understand exactly what it will take to lower our emissions as rapidly as science demands, and from social movements that have decades of experience bearing the brunt of false climate solutions, whether nuclear power, the chimera of carbon capture and storage, or carbon offsets.
But in remaining vigilant, we also have to be careful not to bury the overarching message: that this is a potential lifeline that we all have a sacred and moral responsibly to reach for.
The young organizers in the Sunrise Movement, who have done so much to galvanize the Green New Deal momentum, talk about our collective moment as one filled with both “promise and peril.” That is exactly right. And everything that happens from here on in should hold one in each hand.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will announce on Thursdays limits on how much toxic chemicals from cookware and carpeting are allowed in drinking water.
The agency will announce a plan to control a group of chemicals known as PFAS that are linked to cancer, liver and thyroid damage, and other health and fetal effects. The substances, which include PFOA and PFOS, are found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and other manmade materials.
Acting administrator Andrew Wheeler will make the announcement at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT)…
An EPA statement about Thursday’s announcement did not mention a specific level for the substances.
ABC News Live interviewed Wheeler on Wednesday and reported that drinking water systems around the country will be tested for the chemicals at lower levels than an earlier round of testing in 2012.
This announcement will be good (but too late) news for the folks in this article by Faith Miller that’s running in the Colorado Springs Independent:
For Steve Patterson, any decision the Environmental Protection Agency makes around whether to regulate toxic PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water is too little, too late.
That’s apparent when he counts off the family members who he believes have already fallen victim to the Air Force firefighting foam that leached into drinking water sources in Fountain, Security-Widefield and the Stratmoor neighborhood of southeast Colorado Springs for decades.
At least 10 of Patterson’s family members and in-laws, including his father, sister, uncle, cousin and niece, have died from different kinds of cancer. A dozen or so more family members are battling cancer. And recently, his 14-year-old grandson required a kidney transplant.
Not all of these people are related by blood, so it’s unlikely that the high occurrence of disease, predominantly kidney- and colon-related, is purely genetic. But Patterson’s family members share at least one deadly risk factor: They all spent years in an area contaminated by chemicals which, according to a recent report in Politico, the EPA doesn’t plan to limit in drinking water.
“We have a huge family, and it’s only the ones out here [in Stratmoor, Fountain, Security-Widefield],” Patterson says. “Now the ones that live in town, they’re not having that problem. And so that’s how I know it has to be connected.”
Evidence that drinking water in the Fountain and Security-Widefield areas was contaminated with the toxic chemicals began to emerge in 2015, and the affected water districts changed sources or added treatment systems to filter out the chemicals. The EPA issued a drinking water advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFASs in May 2016.
But prior to those changes, some groundwater wells in the area had tested at PFAS levels several times that limit. And some of the approximately 65,000 residents had, like Patterson’s family, been exposed to the chemicals for many years.
Patterson’s skeptical that the government will do anything to help longtime residents who’ve suffered still-unknown consequences from the PFAS chemicals that leached into their drinking water.
“It’s not that we’re looking for money. We’re looking for like, who’s going to take care of me?” Patterson says. “I mean, what is it in my system … what is the government going to do to fix it and help us?”
In December, initial results from a study by the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines showed that Security-Widefield and Fountain residents who had lived in the area for at least three years before 2015 had higher-than-normal levels of three PFAS chemicals in their blood.
Study participants had blood levels of one toxic compound, PFHxS, that were about 10 times as high as U.S. population reference levels. They had about twice as much PFOS, another chemical in the PFAS group, as the general population. Previous studies have linked this chemical to thyroid hormone effects in humans.
And levels of the chemical PFOA — which human studies have linked to cancer — were 40 to 70 percent higher than U.S. reference levels.
As public awareness of widespread PFAS contamination grew (the Air Force has identified approximately 200 sites in the U.S. where the firefighting foam may have been released), anger spread among residents, who called for the Air Force to pay to fix the damage. The EPA drew ire, too, when Politico reported in May 2018 that it had sought to cover up a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated safe levels of PFAS could be as low as 12 ppt.
FromYale 360 (Jim Robbins). Here’s an excerpt click through for the photos and to read the whole article:
The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Fifth in a series.
From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.
The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.
“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.
Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any…
As a natural river, before it was dammed, the Colorado was a massive, dynamic waterway. It flowed from elevations above 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, then dropped to sea level, which meant that it moved at high water with tremendous force, liquid sandpaper carving out red rock canyons. It flooded the desert plains, carving new channels and braids with every inundation. When it receded, it left behind a mosaic of fecund marshes, wetlands, and ponds.
In its natural state, the Colorado had more extreme flows than any river in the U.S., ranging from lows of 2,500 cubic feet per second in the winter to 100,000 cubic feet per second in the summer. In 1884, an all-time historical peak flow reached 384,000 cubic feet per second in Arizona.
But extreme flows are too capricious to support a civilization, so over the past century or so humans have built a network of expensive dams and reservoirs, pipelines, canals, flumes, and aqueducts to tame and divert the flow. Yet these projects also strangled the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. By design, the river will never again function as a free-flowing stream.
Now, however, experts and environmentalists are rethinking this technological marvel of a river, and looking at ways a natural Colorado can flourish — to some degree, and in some places — with the permission of the engineers. One of those places is in the delta.
The water that flowed in the once-lush delta has been replaced by sand, and the cottonwoods and willows have surrendered their turf to widespread invasive salt cedar and arrowweed. Without the river and its load of nutrients, marine productivity in the Gulf of California — where the Colorado River once ended — has fallen by up to 95 percent. But despite the dismal forecast for the future of water on the Colorado, some conservationists are hoping to return at least a portion of the delta to its former glory.
“We are trying to restore a network of sites that creates a functional ecosystem,” said Francisco Zamora, who manages the project for the Sonoran Institute. “We’ve acquired water rights, but use them for habitat instead of cotton or wheat.”
The delta is one of a disconnected series of restoration projects that government agencies, local groups, and environmental organizations are undertaking along the Colorado. Numerous efforts are focused on tributaries to the main stem of the river, seeking to enhance resiliency by increasing the flow of water and protecting and restoring riparian habitat for fish and other wildlife.
For example, a coalition of groups — including state agencies, nonprofits, and the Arizona cities of Buckeye and Agua Fria — have been removing invasive salt cedar, planting native species, and building levees to reclaim a 17-mile stretch of the Gila River. Invasive salt cedars are a region-wide problem on the lower Colorado, with a single tree sucking up 300 gallons a day. The invasive forest on this stretch of the river uses enough water to serve 200,000 households.
In the upper basin, meanwhile, a number of groups and local landowners are working to restore a 15-mile-long floodplain with globally significant biodiversity on a narrow section of the Yampa River, another Colorado tributary. Called Morgan Bottom, the section has been damaged by deforestation and poor agricultural practices, threatening bald eagles and greater sand hill cranes, as well as a rare riparian forest of narrowleaf cottonwood and red osier dogwood.
But there are limits to how natural the Colorado River can become, especially along the river’s main stem. “We should not kid ourselves that we are making it natural again,” said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program and the author of a book about the restoration of the Colorado. “We are creating an intensively managed system to mimic some nature because we value it.”
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable.
Indeed, some of the remaining naturalness on the Colorado is, paradoxically, because of the human-made system. “The geography of the Colorado gives it hope because L.A. and southern California, which everybody loves to hate, guarantee that a lot of water stays in the system through the Grand Canyon,” says Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a member of the Colorado River Research Group. “The best friend endangered fish ever had in the Colorado River Basin is that giant sucking sound” of California withdrawing water.
Widespread protection efforts are focused on native fish in the Colorado. The river once was home to an unusual number of endemic fish. But dams, irrigation, and the introduction of bullhead, carp, and catfish did them in. While the upper basin still has 14 native fish species, the lower basin, according to one study, “has the dubious distinction of being among the few major rivers of the world with an entirely introduced fish fauna.”
The Colorado pike minnow — something of a misnomer for a fish that historically grew to 6 feet in length and weighed up to 80 pounds — once swam through the entire system from Wyoming to Mexico. It is now listed as endangered, with two distinct populations remaining in the upper Colorado and the Green River.
The humpback chub lived in various canyon sections, and though once seriously endangered, it has fared better in recent years through transplantation efforts, growing from 2,000 to 3,000 fish to 11,000. Officials say it may soon be taken off the endangered list.
Razorback suckers, once common, are now rare. The bonytail, a type of chub that is one of North America’s most endangered fish, no longer exists in the wild. A handful of these fish exist in hatcheries, and attempts are underway to restock them in the river throughout the basin.
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable. Dams trap most of the river’s sediment in reservoirs, which means there is no material to rebuild beaches, sandbars, and important fish habitat downstream.
Dams also deprive the river downstream of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, and stratify water temperatures. The native fish in the Colorado adapted to a wide range of temperatures, from cold to very warm. They also evolved to tolerate high flood flows along with extremely dry periods. Now, the water is cold in the summer for miles below the dams, and the humpback chub and other fish that had adapted to a range of water temperatures and flows suffer.
Something called hydro-peaking also has had serious impacts on the food web. Dams generate power according to demand. As people come home from work and switch on the stove, air conditioning, and lights, demand soars and dams release more water to produce power. “Prior to the construction of dams, there were almost no major daily changes in river levels,” said David Lytle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University. When fluctuations in water levels occur, they “can interrupt the egg-laying practices of some species. It’s a serious problem.”
Insects lay their eggs just below the water level, and if levels drop rapidly it can dry them out. A recent study found that below the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, there was a complete absence of stoneflies, mayflies, and other species — insects that are vital food for fish, bats, birds, and other creatures.
Because of the ecological effects of the Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado is one of the least productive sections of river in the world. The Colorado here will always be highly unnatural, a novel, human-created ecosystem with some natural elements.
Today, there is a large and growing backlash against dams in America and elsewhere as the immense damages they have inflicted on rivers become manifest. Few dams, though, are as reviled as the Glen Canyon, which was built in 1963 and took 17 years to fill Lake Powell.
Before the Glen Canyon was dammed, those who saw it say it was not unlike the Grand Canyon, with towering walls of red, tan, and ochre. Early Native American sites were plentiful. Environmental activist Edward Abbey decried the dam, and in his novel the Monkey Wrench Gang fantasized about using houseboats packed with explosives to blow it up. In 1981, members of Earth First!, a radical environmental group with a connection to Abbey, rolled a black plastic “crack” down the face of the dam to symbolize its demise.
Removing the dam was part of the reason the Glen Canyon Institute was formed, but activists have now dropped that idea, says Rich Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City physician who founded the group. Today, he advocates draining Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead, which is downstream and where the need for water is by far the greatest. The “Fill Mead First” campaign would restore a free-running Colorado River to what was once Lake Powell.
“You’d get much of Glen Canyon back,” said Ingebretsen. “A free-flowing river through the Grand Canyon means you’d restore the river — riparian zones, animals that belong there, a beautiful canyon with arches and bridges and waterfalls. Much of that would come back very quickly.” There would also be increased water in the river, he says, because so much of the Colorado is now lost from Lake Powell; scientists estimate that the lake loses three times Nevada’s allotment of water because of evaporation. As levels in Lake Mead drop due to prolonged drought, a growing number of people are taking this idea more seriously.
Paradoxically, two of the Colorado River’s most important wetlands for wildlife are the product of runoff from irrigated farm fields — and are now at risk from a changing climate and agreements to reduce water use.
In the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, the 40,000-acre La Cienega de Santa Clara wetland was inadvertently created in the 1970s when U.S. officials built a canal to dispose of salty wastewater from agricultural fields in Arizona. As the water began spilling into the desert, myriad forms of life began to appear. Now its cattail-studded marshes and mudflats are considered one of the most important wetlands in North America, home to 280 species of birds — including the endangered Ridgeways rail — on what was once hard-baked desert.
Meanwhile, in California, the Salton Sea was once a shallow inland lake whose levels routinely fluctuated. In 1905, an effort to increase Colorado River flow into the Imperial Valley led farmers to allow too much river water into their irrigation canal, overwhelming their system; for two years the water poured into the 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide Salton Sea and expanded it.
But as less water becomes available to agriculture and rising temperatures cause more water to evaporate, scientists are concerned that these wetlands will dry and shrink faster than they already have. A 2003 agreement, for example, allows agricultural water in the Imperial Valley to be sent to San Diego for municipal uses. That could cause water levels in the Salton Sea to drop by more than 40 percent, dramatically reducing bird habitat and increasing toxic dust because wetlands would dry out. Local, state, and federal officials have devised a plan — still not fully funded — to restore 15,000 acres of wetlands, at a cost of more than $700 million.
The largest project to restore some semblance of nature to the Colorado River, though, is in the delta. An unusual agreement in 2012 between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, mandated that the two countries would provide water and funding to revive sections of the delta and release a one-time pulse of 105,000 acre-feet to again connect the river to the delta temporarily. Scientists would then study the effects.
In 2014, for the first time in decades, the river flowed again in Mexico — for eight weeks. San Luis Rio Colorado — once a Colorado River town, but now a dusty desert settlement — became a river town for two months, to the delight of locals, many of whom had never seen the river. The pulse offered a glimpse of what reclamation efforts might look like. “It gave us an idea of how the river behaves, and the best sites for restoration,” said Zamora.
Minute 319 and its 2017 replacement, Minute 323, have funded the restoration of sections of the river. A group of nonprofits — including the National Audubon Society, the Sonoran Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and a Mexican group called Pronatura Noroeste — is working on a project called Raise the River to revive a significant swath of the delta.
In 2008, the group secured rights to 1,200 acres along the desiccated river channel. Since then, local residents have torn out acres of salt cedar and planted irrigated fields of cottonwood, willow, and other endemic species — more than 200,000 trees in all. A small supply of water mandated by the treaty, along with excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, have been dedicated to the restoration.
On a recent visit, I joined Zamora and botanist Celia Alvarado on a short boat ride to Laguna Grande, a 6-mile section of restored river and estuary. We skimmed across still water the color of weak tea, minnows darting away from our paddles. Thick groves of cottonwoods and willows lined the river. Zamora remarked that bobcats and beaver lived there now, along with blue grosbeaks and yellow-billed cuckoos. “Impacting the target species is key,” he said.
And what about the jaguar? I asked. It has not returned, he said. Will it come back?
“Yes,” said Zamora, smiling. “Someday. If they allow me to introduce them.”