The Colorado River comes to an end about 100 miles short of the Pacific Ocean.
Downstream of Hoover Dam the river is like a piece of yarn frayed at one end split into many strands heading in different directions. Canals transport its waters to far off cities and sprawling farm fields. Until just a narrow stream hits the U.S.-Mexico border.
One final dam diverts the rest of the water into Mexico. It makes a hard jog to the West to irrigate farm fields and flow through faucets as far away as Tijuana.
If there’s one thing people know about the Colorado River it’s that it doesn’t do what other rivers in the world do. It no longer reaches the ocean. Its journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific is cut short.
But it wasn’t always this way. When the nature writer Aldo Leopold took a canoe trip with his brother through the Colorado River delta in 1922 he called it a land of green lagoons. In his book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold paints a picture of an estuary teeming with life, with jaguars, bobcats, racoons, cormorants, and quails.
When Leopold visited, the water spread so wide across the flat delta that he wrote the river was, “everywhere and nowhere.” The men watched as flocks of birds came in to feast. There were so many egrets he wrote that it looked like an approaching snowstorm.
The Colorado River’s delta was de-watered over the span of decades, and as the water disappeared, much of the wildlife did too. And yet, over the last ten years or so enough powerful people realized the mistake we made. Water is slowly returning to some portions of the dry river bed in Mexico.
It’s a story about collaboration between two countries to rethink what we ask of the river. And it’s a lesson in how difficult it is to give water back to the environment once it’s been taken away.
From KUNC, this is “Thirst Gap: Learning To Live With Less On The Colorado River.” I’m Luke Runyon. This is episode six, “Where The River Ends.”
Last summer I made the trip to the Colorado River delta in Mexico. The delta is the spot where the river and the ocean, the salt water and the fresh water would meet. I was with my friend Elliot Ross about a two hour drive south of Mexicali. It was almost impossible to imagine that this was the same place Aldo Leopold described as lush and green.
ELLIOT ROSS: “So this would have been part of the estuary. This would have been wet?”
LUKE RUNYON: “Yeah.”
ROSS: “Full of life.”
RUNYON: “Basically from those mountains over there to the far end, near where the Ciénega is. That would have all been kind of considered the Colorado River delta.”
Elliot and I traveled to witness a brief reconnection between a portion of the Colorado River in its delta and the ocean. Elliott is a photographer, and we both share a fascination with the West’s rivers.
As we drove through the dried out delta our rental car’s tires spit out giant plumes of dust. We passed these eerie-looking ponds, with red-colored water and white salt crust around them.
ROSS: “Multi-colored salt pools mixed with dead vegetation about head height, as far as I can see.”
Forests of dead mesquite trees and tamarisk ran for miles. Elliot said it smelled like death.
We came to meet the scientists and environmental advocates working in this area, people who are studying the delta so they can understand what it will take to bring it back to some semblance of its former self.
RUNYON: “Hello. Good. Good to see you again. Hi.”
AÍDA NAVARRO: “Hi, Luke. Nice to meet you.”
RUNYON: “Hey, Tomás. Good to see you again.”
People like Tomás Rivas.
TOMÁS RIVAS: “I'm a marine biologist and restoration specialist in Sonoran Institute.”
RUNYON: “And can you say where we are right now?”
RIVAS: “Right now we are here in the Colorado River delta estuary. That is where the river and the sea mix when the conditions are the right one.”
Tomás was in a pair of muck boots and a wide-brimmed hat, the uniform necessary to trudge through this muddy delta and avoid the relentless sun. Temperatures can easily surpass 120 degrees here in summer. Today was milder, only about 100 outside with a stiff wind. As we spoke the tide began to come in, spreading across the barren mudflats.
RIVAS: “This area is more dominated by, uh, seawater. Science says this is an inverse or negative estuary because it is dominated by saltwater or seawater more than freshwater.”
The saltwater from the rising tide dominates because we’ve essentially removed all the freshwater from the equation. All of our demands on the Colorado River have stretched the definition of the word “estuary” here. An estuary is supposed to be the place where freshwater rivers and saltwater oceans mix. They’re havens of biodiversity, and the Colorado’s estuary used to be the sprawling network of wetlands Leopold wrote about.
But that just doesn’t exist here in the way that it did before humans came along and dammed the river.
RIVAS: “I think the conditions make this place unique and also all the changing elements here in the estuary. You have the higher temperatures, a lot of evaporation, the little fresh water. The tide enters frequently, but not enough to inundate all the area.”
NAVARRO: “I would love to have been here 100 years ago where you would probably see a huge river flowing into a beautiful ocean, well a beautiful sea like the Sea of Cortez.”
Aída Navarro runs Raise the River, or Alianza Revive el Río Colorado. It’s a coalition of environmental groups on both sides of the border with the goal of bringing the river back here, to help this estuary actually live up to its name. Just upstream of where we were talking, a relatively small amount of water was spilling back into the river channel, and making its way down here to the estuary.
This very brief reconnection between the river and the ocean was made possible because of work her coalition has done.
NAVARRO: “I think it's inspiring because usually when you see a place like this, you would think like, ‘Okay, all is lost. Let's go someplace else.’ Right?”
The inspiring part, to her, is how the two countries that rely on the Colorado River, the U.S. and Mexico, have for the past ten years agreed that the environment here is deserving of some water.
NAVARRO: “This is an example worldwide about how a shared basin can and can be shared and for, how they call it when people get married, for better or for worse, or in good and bad. I mean, when there is abundance of water, we will share it. When there is scarcity of water, we will share on the scarcity, we will share on the shortages. And it's the first example in the world where the environment has had a voice, because in the past it's water for humans, whether it's the cities, the agriculture, swimming pools, Vegas, you name it. But what about the environment, right?”
This marriage between the U.S. and Mexico on river issues goes back to 1944. That’s when the two countries signed a treaty and agreed to set aside a certain amount of the river’s water for use in Mexico. Today much of Mexico’s Colorado River water goes to agriculture in the Mexicali valley, and flows to cities like Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali.
After the 1944 treaty was signed the two countries came back together every now and then, mostly to tackle issues of water quality, but really they kept each other at arm’s length when it came to the river’s management. Until 2010 when a natural disaster brought them closer together.
NEWS CLIP: “The quake was so powerful people felt it more than 300 miles away in Las Vegas. ‘That was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.’ The most severe damage is south of the border. Mexicali, Mexico is just 19 miles from the epicenter.”
A massive earthquake upended irrigation canals in Mexico. So in an unprecedented move, the country asked to store its water in American reservoirs. And four years later, environmental groups on both sides of the border pushed for some of that stored water to be set aside for an experiment, to see what happens when water returns to an area where it’s been absent for decades.
NEWS CLIP: “Mexico is releasing part of its river allotment for 8 weeks. The first time ever that water has been released to benefit the environment. It’s called a pulse flow because it mimics a spring flood. A one-time event done this year before possible drought restrictions.”
NAVARRO: “Visually and emotionally, it was beautiful. I mean just to see all this water flowing for the first time in decades or years.”
It was a spectacle. A wave of water spilled into the dry river bed. People from the nearby city San Luis Río Colorado came to see the river flow again. Spontaneous festivals popped up. When I visited a few years after it had happened a local resident I talked to compared the pulse flow to the return of a long lost friend. Aída says it was joyous.
NAVARRO: “But that water didn't necessarily reach the places that we wanted it to. I mean, it was a good experiment, but it was a good experiment to learn that a lot of water did get lost or evaporated or where it went into the ground.”
Because portions of the delta have been dried out for so long, there are reaches of the river channel where the pulse flow just got absorbed like a sponge. Environmentalists are careful to say that this wasn’t wasted water. It just didn’t do as much ecological good as it could have if it had been used more wisely. So Aída says after that event, environmental groups went back to the drawing board, asked for more water from the U.S. and Mexico over a longer period of time, and they would use it, more methodically, to restore the river channel. And they got it. The two countries agreed to set aside water for the environment in 2017.
NAVARRO: “We're saying let's send the water where we need it, where it's going to be more beneficial. Let's send those droplets to the specific plants that we want to hydrate. Right?”
But with all the pressures on the Colorado River -- to water crops in both the U.S. and Mexico, to flow through faucets in some of America’s biggest cities -- Aída says it’s been a challenge to make a case to people in power that some of that water should be set aside just to benefit the environment.
NAVARRO: “If you compare to the whole Colorado River basin, the amount of water that we're putting into the environment, it's nothing. It's a drop of water. It's less than that. So, I mean, it's easy for people who don't really understand to make a case against like, ‘Why are you just spilling the water, right?’”
And she says as those pressures increase, both countries cannot afford to sacrifice the environment. The current agreement between the two countries only lasts for another 3 years. Beyond that, there’s no guarantee restoration work will keep happening here.
NAVARRO: “We're like the last front of the fight against, against climate change. And we have to prove that we can make these ecosystems resilient again.”
How do you go about making the delta resilient again? That’s coming up after the break.
RUNYON: “This is where we're going, right?”
Upstream of the estuary sits a tiny oasis.
RUNYON: “There's water spilling out of a canal down into this narrow concrete channel. Over these cobblestones and into this restoration site called Chausse.”
This is one of a handful of restoration areas in the Colorado River’s historic channel in Mexico established in the last several years. It’s a place that used to be dry, and where water is returning. There's mesquite trees and cottonwoods lining the river channel.
RUNYON: “It's beautiful and it feels wet. The air feels moist, which is so rare here.”
The first person I meet at the site is Ricardo Escobedo.
RICARDO ESCOBEDO: [SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
Who immediately pulls out his phone to show me pictures of beavers.
ESCOBEDO: [SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
There are whole beaver families that have taken up residence here. One time while he was working he saw a small furry thing scurrying around, thought it was a mouse, but no, it was a baby beaver. And they’ve been multiplying here ever since.
Ricardo runs the irrigation system at this restoration site about a 40 minute drive from the border. And let me explain how this place works. So this area is where the Colorado River used to flow. As a part of the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico water is delivered here through Mexico’s irrigation canals. That’s the water that’s pouring into this site as we’re talking.
Once a month workers like Ricardo spill water into this site and then use irrigation techniques to move it around to water trees. In some sense they’re using farming techniques to regrow habitat instead of crops.
In front of us is a giant green pond, surrounded by trees. And because it’s 100 degrees out the shade is heavenly. Aída helped to translate.
ESCOBEDO: [SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
He says he’s proud of this place. Many of these trees he planted with his own two hands. He calls them his babies -- arbolitos. And even though this site is one tiny green island in a massive dried out delta, he says it’s important.
ESCOBEDO: [SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
Migratory birds land on the water here and build what Ricardo calls little bird hotels -- hoteles pequeños -- in the trees. This oasis allows them to rest and refresh on their journey from South America to the north.
ESCOBEDO: [SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
Ricardo is glad that this spot has become a place for birds to stop. Imagine taking a road trip and not stopping to go to the bathroom or fill up the tank, he says. You probably wouldn’t make it very far. That’s what this site gives birds.
This is just one of a handful of sites that have popped up along the river channel in Mexico since the last agreement between the two countries was signed.
ESCOBEDO: [SPEAKS IN SPANISH]
Ricardo says this site shows how much benefit there is to the environment, when you set aside even just a small amount of water.
The impact at Chausse is even more impressive when you think about how two countries -- that at many times are at odds with one another -- came together to make it happen.
CARLOS DE LA PARRA: “You know, I look around the world for another border that joins two countries that are so dissimilar and you know you’re hard pressed to find it.”
Carlos de la Parra is an urban studies professor at Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. Carlos has been a part of binational negotiations to make these restoration sites happen. He says he still hears pushback from Mexican farmers and city leaders.
DE LA PARRA: “And people are pissed. I mean, there are voices out there that are saying, ‘Stop this.’ Because why? ‘Because you are wasting water.’”
Water isn’t partisan, Carlos says. The way people feel about what’s wasted water, and what isn’t, depends on your relationship to it. A farmer in the Mexicali Valley might look suspiciously toward water flowing for the environment, especially as supplies tighten for farmers on both sides of the border. A city leader having to mandate conservation could see that water set aside for the environment and think it would be better used to build more homes to spur on the local economy. What Carlos says, is that water for the environment cannot be framed as an either-or proposition.
DE LA PARRA: “Throughout the world, two countries agreeing to share water to the benefit of their shared ecosystem has never happened. Never. Dividing the waters between two countries and international rivers are for the purpose of economic development, or just simply sharing the waters, or agriculture. But never had it happened that two countries would decide, Jesus Christ, our joined ecosystem, our shared ecosystem needs the water.”
NAVARRO: “Not putting water into the river should no longer be an option.”
Again, Raise The River’s Aída Navarro.
NAVARRO: “We must continue this because it's kind of showing that the mistake of taking water from the river many years ago -- I mean, that was probably the mistake, right? I mean, it's great that all this water has been used for human consumption, for whatever industry, cities, et cetera. But we cannot afford to let these ecosystems die. We cannot afford to let a river die.”
We’ve made our way here, the last stop on our journey down the Colorado River, starting at its headwaters high up in the mountains, and ending here at the US-Mexico border. At each stop along the way, we’ve explored the tensions, the tradeoffs, that exist as the region grapples with water scarcity.
We’ve met farmers concerned for their livelihoods and their tie to the land.
TROY WATERS: “My passion is to see my son keep farming, maybe see my grandson or granddaughter keep farming.”
Boaters worried about their favorite places drying up.
SHERI FACINELLI: “This is different. This is feeling like we really could stop Lake Powell as we know it.”
Environmentalists decrying the loss of wildlife habitats.
PETE LEFEVBRE: “We don't, as a species, react until it's like, ‘Oh man, we need to do something.’ And we're getting to the point where people are saying, ‘Man, we need to do something.’”
People in cities growing anxious about limits to their use.
KURTIS HYDE: “We're a city, a large city placed in a precarious place where we depend upon that Colorado River to survive. And so we've got to do our part.”
And tribal leaders calling for all of us to acknowledge past and present wrongs when it comes to the West’s water.
CRYSTAL TULLEY-CORDOVA: “I think with the Colorado River Basin, the challenge is that many people think that things are etched in stone.”
We saw that in the farm fields of Colorado, at Lake Powell, on the Navajo Nation, in Las Vegas neighborhoods.
Wishful thinking about what the Colorado River was capable of got us into this mess. What we have control over, as a society, is how much we choose to rely on it.
This is where things stand currently: We don’t have enough water to meet everyone’s needs. But deciding who should bear the burden of water scarcity, what’s fair, what’s right, what’s just. We’re still figuring that out.
Everyone agrees the river cannot provide what we ask of it. And bringing it into balance -- closing the gap between supply and demand -- will mean everyone, every sector of our economy, every person who relies on the river -- will need to learn to live with less.
Thirst Gap is a production of KUNC, brought to you by the Colorado Water Center and the Colorado State University Office of Engagement and Extension, with additional support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder. It was written and reported by me, Luke Runyon. Editing by Johanna Zorn. Our theme song was composed by Jason Paton, who also sound designed and mixed the episode. Ashley Jefcoat, Jennifer Coombes and Natalie Skowlund are our digital editors. Sean Corcoran is KUNC’s news director. Tammy Terwelp is KUNC’s president and CEO.
Special thanks to: Alex Hager, Elliot Ross, Stephanie Daniel, Desmond O’Boyle, Robert Leja, Kim Rais, and Jen Prall.
To learn more about the Colorado River, go to kunc.org/thirstgap or check out the show notes for a link.