Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the San Juan National Forest, and Trout Unlimited are partnering to repopulate Wolf Creek with San Juan Cutthroat trout

Courtesy Photo This trout is one of a new pure genetic strain of cutthroat trout (San Juan cutthroat) found recently by Colorado Parks and wildlife biologists. This photo was taken at CPW’s Durango fish hatchery via the South Fork Tines.

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (John Finefrock):

The San Juan cutthroat trout, a fish native to the San Juan Wa- tershed and once thought to be extinct, will be reintroduced to the area in a project administered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW ) and the San Juan National Forest…

In 1874, naturalist Charles E. Aiken collected and preserved samples of the San Juan cutthroat in Pagosa Springs, one of which has been stored in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., since the late 1800s.

The San Juan cutthroat was believed to have gone extinct about 100 years ago.

About 10 years ago, samples of a cutthroat were collected, but scien- tists didn’t, or couldn’t, prove that it was the same genetically pure San Juan cutthroat that originated in the San Juan Watershed and was collected in 1874.

“There were a couple populations identified around 10 years ago,” Hanks said. “People started looking at ‘em and saying, ‘Hey, what’s the deal with these, there might be something special about these. But, the consensus was that they were just some sort of hybrid.”

Last year, modern genetic test- ing was done on the fish samples collected 10 years ago that prove a genetic match between the recent samples and the Smithsonian samples from the late 1800s. “Now we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that those fish we’ve always wondered about are indeed the San Juan lineage cutthroat trout. They are not a hybrid, they are native to the San Juan Basin,” said Hanks.

Now, CPW, the San Juan National Forest and Trout Unlimited are partnering to breed and reintroduce the San Juan cutthroat, in abundance, to the area around Pagosa Springs…

The project, currently under- way, will breed the San Juan cut- throats in the Durango hatchery and ultimately release them into Wolf Creek, near Wolf Creek Pass…

Hanks explained that Wolf Creek was chosen as the site of the proj- ect because “it’s a very productive fishery.”

The San Juan cutthroat bred in Durango will be released into Wolf Creek around the summer of 2022.

Pagosa Springs: Meeting to discuss new San Juan cutthroat trout management, April 16, 2019

Courtesy Photo This trout is one of a new pure genetic strain of cutthroat trout found recently by Colorado Parks and wildlife biologists. This photo was taken at CPW’s Durango fish hatchery via the South Fork Tines.

From Colorado Parks and Wildlife via The South Fork Tines:

Management plans for a new pure genetic strain of cutthroat trout will be discussed at a meeting, 6:30 p.m., April 16 at the Springs Resort, 165 Hot Springs Blvd. in Pagosa Springs.

The meeting will be led by representatives from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited-Five Rivers chapter and the U.S Forest Service.
The unique San Juan River cutthroat trout was found by Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists several years ago; however, the find was only verified last year thanks to advanced genetic testing techniques. Specimens of the fish were found in eight remote and isolated streams in Southwest Colorado on public and private land. Last summer, some trout were spawned on site and the fertilized eggs were taken to CPW’s Durango hatchery to be raised. Some trout were also removed because the streams were in danger of being damaged by the 416 Fire.

“The goal of the meeting is to provide additional information on the San Juan Cutthroat trout lineage discovery, how we plan on conserving the fish, and what that might mean for fishing opportunities in the future,” said Jim White, CPW’s aquatic biologist in Durango.

The focus of the initial conservation efforts will be in the upper reaches of Wolf Creek in Mineral County. A portion of the creek was treated last summer to kill non-native trout in the stream. CPW hopes that some San Juan cutthroats can be stocked there this summer. CPW is also working with the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, water agencies and private landowners to identify other waters where the fish can be stocked.

Discovery of the fish dates back to 1874 when naturalist Charles E. Aiken removed and preserved two of the fish and placed them in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. The specimen was forgotten until 2012 when researchers from the University of Colorado and CPW were searching for old trout specimens in the nation’s museums. When the researchers tested tissue from those two specimens they found genetic markers unique to the San Juan River Basin. Armed with the knowledge of these genetic “fingerprints”, CPW researchers and biologists set out to test all the cutthroat trout they could find in the basin in search of any relic populations.

John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for CPW’s Southwest Region in Durango, said re-establishing the fish will be a long-term process.
“Finding and identifying the fish was a tremendous discovery,” Alves said. “But because the populations we’ve found are so small it will take years of work by CPW’s fish culturists and our biologists to establish self-sustaining populations.”

Cutthroat trout originated in the Pacific Ocean and are one of the most diverse fish species in North America with 14 different subspecies. Three related subspecies are found in Colorado: Colorado River cutthroat trout found west of the Continental Divide; greenback cutthroat trout in the South Platte River Basin; and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout in the San Luis Valley. Cutthroats from each of these areas have specific and distinctive genetic markers. CPW propagates the three remaining subspecies, and actively manages their conservation and recovery throughout the state.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

A One-of-a-Kind Solution for a River in Critical Need — @CORiverTed #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From The Walton Family Foundation (Ted Kowalski):

To save endangered fish and support healthy water levels, conservationists get creative on the Colorado River’s 15-Mile Reach

The Colorado River—that ancient and mighty flow that has carved the landscape of the American West over millennia—serves as a primary water source for approximately 40 million people. But there is a stretch in the headwaters that at times runs so low and weak it has trouble sustaining some of its oldest inhabitants.

This stretch, known as the 15-Mile Reach, is home to four federally endangered fish species–the Colorado Pikeminnow, Humpback Chub, Bonytail and Razorback Sucker. In the springtime, when irrigation diversions begin but snowpack runoff is still nominal, the 15-Mile Reach can drop to dangerously low levels.

Now, a groundbreaking deal between Walton Family Foundation grantee the Colorado Water Trust, the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Grand Valley Water Users Association and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power in the West, have secured a legal mechanism to be able to send more water down the river at critical times through a creative arrangement that both enhances environmental and recreational flows and protects existing water rights.

The “braiding” of shallow water and exposed riverbed concerns biologists. Photo © Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The deal provides habitat protection for these embattled fish species by bringing more water into the Reach when it is needed.

This mechanism allows water to be protected from the point of conservation all the way down and through any excess capacity at the Grand Valley Power Plant, then provides instream flow benefits down and through the 15-Mile Reach.

The agreement, like many involving water in the West, required resourceful thinking among all participants. That’s because under current state law, there aren’t many options for upstream water rights owners to send some of their water downstream for the benefit of conservation without going through an often protracted water court process.

And some might question whether using a water right, even for this kind of worthy cause, meets the “beneficial use” standard required by law.

Humpback chub are one of four federally endangered fish species that rely on habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. Humpback chub photo credit US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Faced with that hurdle, the partners needed to find another path forward that met that strict legal requirement. They found their solution just north of the Reach in the aging Grand Valley hydro-electric facility.

Built in 1933, the plant is now undergoing a substantial renovation with help from the Colorado Water Trust.

The Trust was able to lease excess capacity in the hydropower plant, and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District used these proceeds from this lease to help pay for some of the renovations. This kind of creative win-win solution is a model for how we manage the river in the future.

By bringing clean power into the equation, the deal operates under the umbrella of existing law to give water rights owners the flexibility and go-ahead to support a healthy and sustainable river ecosystem.

“The agreement sends water to a critical reach of the river without requiring a permanent change to those water rights,” explains Anne Castle, a Colorado water lawyer and former assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department.

Water travels through a roller dam, generating power, then continues downstream. Roller Dam near Palisade. Photo credit: Hutchinson Water Center

Anne helped broker the groundbreaking deal.

“This arrangement could set a precedent moving forward,” Anne says, “and it also proves that there is a way for those with water supplies to be able to send water downstream in a voluntary, compensated and temporary manner.”

The final agreement is an innovative “three-fer” that provides multiple benefits.

First, the water is protected for instream flow benefits from the original point of use down to the hydropower plant. Then, the water’s momentum is harnessed by the plant and converted to clean energy. Finally, the water continues downstream, augmenting the 15-Mile Reach and helping the river flow at healthier levels, which benefits the fish.

The 15-Mile Reach is located near Grand Junction, Colorado

Water is scarce in the West. Securing the necessary federal, state and local approvals can require a great deal of coordination—and more than a little ingenuity. This is precisely why this nimble approach is such a landmark achievement.

As the health of the Colorado River Basin reaches a critical inflection point, with demand for water now exceeding supply, more agile, innovative projects like what is being accomplished for the 15-Mile Reach offer a new vision for a water-strapped West.

Complex problems often require innovative solutions. As growing populations continue to rely on the 1,500 miles of the Colorado River, this victory proves that progress is possible—often one mile at a time.

Ted Kowalski: Colorado River Initiative Lead and Senior Program Officer
Ted is a senior program officer, leading the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River initiative.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

The Nature Conservancy is building a system to supply water to the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve for razorback sucker habitat

From KSLTV.com (John Hollenhorst):

The rescue project is on the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve, a property owned by The Nature Conservancy on the fringes of Moab alongside the Colorado River. Over the last few weeks, construction crews have been creating a special side-channel that will carry river-water into the wetlands during periods of higher water. It’s designed to mimic – on a small scale – the natural system of annual spring flooding that’s been disrupted over the last century or so by dams, diversions and other human activity.

“We don’t have the same magnitude of flood events, or the same duration, or even the same timing,” said Zach Ahrens, a fish biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, one of several agencies that have partnered on the project.

In the spring, the suckers spawn and hatch tiny babies in the main current of the river. The plan is to divert the higher spring flows through the new channel into a large pond in the Matheson wetlands. Actually, in recent years it hasn’t really resembled a pond because it contains so little water. The new channel is aimed at refilling it from time to time to give the larvae of razorback suckers an alternative, temporary habitat.

“Away from the main channel allows for a little bit warmer water, which allows the fish to grow more quickly,” Ahrens said. “It also allows them some refuge from the turbulent currents that occur during spring runoff.”

If they stay out in the main channel of the river, the larvae are highly vulnerable to being eaten by non-native fish that have taken over the Colorado. “They’re maybe a half an inch long,” Ahrens said. “They’re tiny little translucent noodle-looking things.”

But if they can spend a few months in an off-stream nursery, they can come out big and strong.

“If we can bring them into a safe harbor, into a nursery and give them the months they need to grow to a sufficient size, and then release them back into the river, then they can compete” Whitham said.

When they re-enter the Colorado River, they’ll have a better chance of stand up to hungry non-native predators that were accidentally or deliberately introduced in the last few decades.

“If we can help bring back these populations of native fish, who have been around for millions of years, and get them to sufficient sizes, then we’ll know that we’re doing something right,” Whitham said.

The project is being built in phases because all the funding hasn’t been lined up yet. The Nature Conservancy hopes to fill the gap with state and federal grants as well as private contributions.

@COWaterTrust, Grand Valley Irrigators, and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District ink water deal for fish and hydroelectric generation #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Max Schmidt, general manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District in Palisade. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A deal announced Tuesday will help both endangered fish in the Colorado River and the aging Grand Valley Power Plant hydroelectric facility near Palisade.

The Colorado Water Trust has reached a five-year deal with the Grand Valley Waters Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the operators of the facility. Under the deal, water the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust will secure from upstream sources may be delivered to the nearly century-old plant during critical times of year, helping provide adequate water levels for fish in an important 15-mile stretch of the river just downstream of the plant.

Andy Schultheiss, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, said a major goal is to deliver more water to the fish in the spring to help counter a drop in river flows that results when irrigation diversions have begun but runoff from mountain snowpack is still minimal. He said that phenomenon has come to be known as the “April hole,” although it has actually begun to happen earlier in the year. Warming temperatures have accelerated the start of irrigation and runoff seasons in Colorado.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

The agreement is designed to help humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow and other native endangered fish in the river. It also will benefit the plant and its operators by enabling the plant to run at a higher capacity when it doesn’t get enough water from other sources, including its own water rights, to maximize power production.

That should mean more revenue for the plant’s operators. In addition, the Colorado Water Trust has committed to contribute $425,000 to a $5.4 million rehabilitation project at the plant, which is nearly a century old. A Walton Family Foundation grant is making that contribution possible.

Schultheiss said the trust benefits by getting the ability to deliver water from upstream to the fish, without the possibility of the water being diverted by other users before it gets there. He said what has frustrated conservationists trying to get more water to what’s known as the 15-Mile Reach is that it can’t be protected from other upstream users unless there’s a purpose for it.

“It just so happens this plant is just upstream of the 15 Mile Reach so it’s perfectly located,” he said.

He said the trust will likely contract for water from an upstream reservoir for the project.

The upgrade work at the plant also will help protect the plant’s senior water rights, which benefit the fish. Those rights let the plant pull water from the Colorado River headwaters to the 15-Mile Reach without that water being available to holders of more junior upstream water rights.

“Working in partnership with the Colorado Water Trust to rehabilitate the Grand Valley Power Plant and more effectively utilize the capacity in the system is a win-win proposition,” Max Schmidt of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District said in a news release.

Mark Harris of the Grand Valley Water Users Association said in the release, “In times of increased pressure on water supplies throughout the state, projects like this that further the interests of multiple sectors are sorely needed.”

In the release, Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which is led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, applauded those involved for “crafting this one-of-a-kind agreement.”

Restoring the #ColoradoRiver: Bringing New Life to a Stressed River — Yale 360 #COriver #aridification

Colorado River Delta

From Yale 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…

Morelos Dam. Photo credit American Rivers.

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.

Point 24 in the Colorado River Delta, September 12, 2016. Photo credit The Nature Conservancy.

“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.

Beginnings. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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.

Changes in the northeastern reaches of Lake Powell are documented in this series of natural-color images taken by the Landsat series of satellites between 1999 and 2017. The Colorado River flows in from the east around Mile Crag Bend and is swallowed by the lake. At the west end of Narrow Canyon, the Dirty Devil River joins the lake from the north. (At normal water levels, both rivers are essentially part of the reservoir.) At the beginning of the series in 1999, water levels in Lake Powell were relatively high, and the water was a clear, dark blue. The sediment-filled Colorado River appeared green-brown. To see the complete series go to: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/WorldOfChange/LakePowell. Photos via NASA

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.

Martha Gomez-Sapiens, a monitoring team member and postdoctoral research associate in the UA Department of Geosciences, stands on a riverbank next to willows and cottonwoods that germinated as a result of the pulse flow. (Photo: Karl W. Flessa/UA Department of Geosciences)

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.”

The @CWCB_DNR February 2019 “CWCB Confluence Newsletter” is hot off the presses

Platte River photo credit US Bureau of Reclamation.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program

The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program is an innovative and successful approach to endangered species recovery and water development in Colorado. For almost 13 years, this program has been running smoothly in the background allowing for economic growth in the North and South Platte Basins, as well as species conservation in the Central Platte. Now, Colorado and other partners are taking steps to extend the program for another 13 years. Program partners are confident that the success of the program will speak for itself during the process of seeking congressional re-authorization. Learn more about what the CWCB and program partners are doing to reauthorize the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program in this article.