As The #ColoradoRiver Basin Dries, Can An Accidental Oasis Survive? — KUNC #COriver #aridification

La Ciénega de Santa Clara via YouTube

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

CIÉNEGA DE SANTA CLARA, MEXICO: Juan Butrón-Méndez navigates a small metal motorboat through a maze of tall reeds here in the Mexican state of Sonora. It’s nearing sunset, and the sky is turning shades of light blue and purple…

Butrón-Méndez lives nearby and works for the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste as a bird monitor…

He cuts the motor in an open stretch of water he calls the “scary lagoon,” ringed by tall grasses that rise from the thigh-high water. Without the boat’s droning hum, coastal birds appear over the reeds, and come in for a water landing.

American coots, with their white bills and dark grey feathers, cackle as they swim. They’re interspersed among broad-winged, yellow-beaked pelicans. Other birds, just silhouettes, dart along the surface, skimming for insects before dark. There’s no sign of them tonight, but several species of threatened or endangered marsh birds — like the Ridgway’s rail — call this place home too…

Butrón-Méndez has explored this wetland since its creation, watching over the course of decades as the shape-shifting oasis was born.

“Water started to flow to this place in the 1970s. I would walk around here without having to worry about getting wet,” Butrón-Méndez said though a translator. “If there wasn’t water, it’s a dry place.”

He’s been called the Ciénega’s patron saint, able to rattle off its history and the names of the birds, fish and mammals that live here.

The wetland is fed by a concrete canal that removes drainage water from American farms across the border in Arizona. The canal is called the MODE — Main Outlet Drain Extension. The salty runoff inadvertently created this oasis in the middle of the Sonoran desert, a perfect stopover for migratory birds on their journey along the Pacific coast…

But there’s a problem. As the Colorado River basin heats up and dries out like climate projections predict, Butrón-Méndez is concerned people will stop thinking of the water that flows to the wetland as waste, find a way to use it and, in turn, harm the Ciénega…

Wasted water

The Ciénega was born in 1977 when the U.S. began draining salty agricultural runoff to the Santa Clara slough, near the Gulf of California. Years prior, the U.S. agreed not to send degraded water to Mexico, a near-constant tension between the two countries since they signed their first Colorado River treaty in 1944.

In a 1973 agreement called the “Permanent and Definitive Solution to the International Problem of the Salinity of the Colorado River,” President Richard Nixon’s administration agreed to a limit on how salty water would be at when delivered at the U.S.-Mexico border.

To keep the river from becoming loaded with salt, someone had to devise a way to keep the farm runoff from ending up in it. That’s how the MODE canal came to be. After irrigating lettuce fields and date palms in salty soil near Yuma, Arizona, the concrete-lined MODE would take the leftover water across the border close to the Pacific Ocean to dispose of it.

No one meant to create a haven for birds and other wildlife in the dried-out Colorado River delta in the process. But by sending about 100,000 acre-feet of water annually out into the desert, that’s what happened…

The wetland does have some protections. The Mexican government has designated the Ciénega as a Biosphere Reserve in the Colorado River Delta. It’s also been recognized for having “great ecological significance” by the Ramsar convention, an intergovernmental treaty on the value of wetlands. If the U.S. were to run the Yuma Desalting Plant it would likely trigger a reconsultation of previous agreements between the two countries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.