Will the Colorado River reach the Gulf of California once more?

Photographs of the historic water pulses.

  • I met Juan and Magdalena Butrón on my first day photographing in the Colorado River Delta. Juan and his son, José Juan, have worked for decades assisting scientists and tourists with their enjoyment and study of what remains of the Delta's ecology. Naturally, both father and son were present at the border the moment the pulse flow gushed forth from the gates of Morelos Dam, on March 23rd.

    John Trotter
  • A dog finds shelter under a palo verde tree from the blazing afternoon sun just one kilometer from the Colorado River channel which the pulse flow re-animated with water only the day before. The average annual rainfall in the area, at the edge of the Sonoran Desert, is slightly less than 2 inches.

    John Trotter
  • Alma-Lidia Merendon-Cerega, left, and Estela Félix-Esquivel, rest beneath the shade of an invasive tamarisk bush, which they will rip out of the ground after their break at the Laguna Grande habitat restoration site, operated by Pronatura and the Sonoran Institute in the Colorado River Delta, Baja California.

    John Trotter
  • Albuquerque Journal reporter John R. Fleck interviews University of Arizona professor Karl Flessa as Colorado River water pours from the just opened gates of the Morelos Dam in Algodones, Baja California. As part of the Minute 319 agreement between the seven Colorado River user states and Mexico, an unprecedented two month "pulse release" simulating a natural spring flood will continue until mid-May, with the intention of reviving a small part of the river's Mexican Delta. Flessa is co-chief scientist for the team monitoring the Minute 319 agreement.

    John Trotter
  • José Juan Butrón in a canoe just below the Morelos Dam, on a marsh bird survey on the day after the beginning of the pulse release.

    John Trotter
  • The people of San Luis Rio Colorado come out to see the return of the river that gave their city a part of its name.

    John Trotter
  • The leading edge of the Colorado River creeps across the sand, as it reclaims its old channel at San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora.

    John Trotter
  • Yuliana Dimas, project coordinator with Mexican environmental organization Pronature Noreste, with brothers Orion and Luca, in section of the renewed Colorado River, near San Luis Rio Colorado, which was completely dry only the day before.

    John Trotter
  • Pronatura wildlife survey coordinator Alejandra Calvo holds a black throated gray warbler before releasing it during an early morning bird survey at the Laguna Grande habitat restoration site in the Colorado River Delta. Scientists are hoping that the pulse release will invigorate native species that serve as habitat for birds along the Pacific Flyway.

    John Trotter
  • Willow seeds sit at water level in the Laguna Grande restoration site, in the Colorado River Delta, Baja California. One of the hoped for outcomes of the pulse release is that cottonwood and willow seeds will be spread down the riparian corridor by the revived Colorado River flow.

    John Trotter
  • An overflow crowd attended a bi-national ceremony atop the Morelos Dam, commemorating the pulse flood release of water into the Colorado River's old channel in the Mexican Delta, as part of the Minute 319 agreement.

    John Trotter
  • A local boy and his family enjoy the Colorado River the day after its flow slowly submerged a road across what had been for decades a dry riverbed.

    John Trotter
  • Scientists with the Minute 319 monitoring team placed depth gauges and other instruments along the dry Colorado River bed in anticipation of the waters of the pulse flow from Morelos Dam. The first picture was taken on March 28 and the second on March 31, 2014.

    John Trotter

 

Last month, Colorado River water made it one step further in the journey from its headwaters in the Colorado Rockies all the way to the Gulf of California, which it has not done regularly since the 1960s. The experimental, and temporary, flow is meant to help restore a delta ecosystem starved of water by over-use and dams for many decades. New York-based photographer John Trotter spent 10 days at the Delta in Mexico to document the historic releases (for background, see our story "New Hope for the Delta").

When Trotter began documenting the Colorado River 13 years ago, he was still recovering from a 1997 traumatic brain injury, which continues to affect his life today. That recovery became part of the inspiration for photographing the Delta. We spoke with Trotter about his impressions of the recent water releases and what the ongoing story of the Colorado River Delta means to him.

How it started

I kind of wanted to do something that was bigger than my own experience. I read a High Country News article (on the Delta) by Michelle Nijhuis in 2000. I knew about Colorado River politics, I’d read Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, but that HCN story humanized it for me. The Colorado River is so important to the whole equation of civilization. I taught Spanish to myself on some CDs and I got it together to go down to Mexico. I thought, ‘However I want to figure out this river, it seems like the best place to go is down there where it stops.’

It wasn’t a real conscious plan. But the very first day of the project in 2001 was on the four-year anniversary of my attack. I just felt like every year (after the 1997 incident) was traumatic whenever that day would come around. I felt like the best thing I could do would be to be photographing.

On his latest trip

I didn’t have an assignment. I knew this thing was going to happen and suddenly the next thing I know, the pulse release is going to be within a matter of weeks. I said, ‘God, this may be a once in a lifetime thing.’ You can’t really know yet.

I think the science about it is pretty interesting – trying to figure out just how wide the water was going to spread through the channel, how deep, and the rate. That’s interesting, but to me it’s also about these people who live down there. I’ve always thought the experience of the river down there is so different from how people experience it in Las Vegas (and other places in the U.S.). Here’s this dry river channel that is just sort of there; the younger people had never seen water go through there.

There were pretty unpopulated areas where the river was going. It wasn’t easy to get there. Sometimes, I’d get the best information I could and then I’d go out looking for the river. No one really knew how fast it was going to be moving. I remember going to one place for three days in a row, and there was just no river. But on the third day, I saw three SUVs and a National Geographic film crew and all these local people out to see the (flooded) road.

The biggest town on the river, San Luis Río Colorado – here’s this town where Río Colorado is half the name of the town, and there wasn’t a river there most of the time. Suddenly the river was there and everyone came out. There were big crowds of people, kids splashing around. Guys were racing around with ATV’s, being crazy and drinking beer; it was like a carnival. People were just ecstatic to see it.

They were asking me because I’m an American, because the river comes from up where I’m from, whether this is going to be permanent: ‘How long’s it going to stay like this?’ I told them, ‘It’s, like, two months of this.’ And we’ll see whether it will it happen again.

Along the way

From 2009 on, I decided I was going to photograph from my folding bicycle. I pulled a suitcase with stroller wheels on the sides, so it became a trailer behind my bike around Las Vegas, in western Colorado, through Moab, in the Imperial Valley, from Palm Springs to Yuma.

I found that (being) on my bicycle changed my photography. That country out there (in the West) invites you to photograph in big sweeping ways and you miss details. Slowing down the pace of passing through the territory, vast as it is, you get to see more of it and notice it.

I’ve been looking over pictures from years ago and seeing how they relate to (new) photos from a different part of the river, seeing how they actually work together. When you’re down in the Delta and see all the sand and dust, you know it’s all from up the river somewhere ages and ages ago. The more I see that, I think of how it’s symbolic of the way the whole watershed is so inter-related.

When they opened those gates on (Morelos) dam and let water back into the main channel on the river, it kind of engaged those people. It brought them back into the mainstream of all the other people who are living along it in Moab or Grand Junction or Needles or Tucson. All these people are party to this very over-allocated river.

I came to realize that people, especially here in the East, they don’t even know that it’s the same river that I’m talking about. That the one going through the Grand Canyon is the same one that goes to the Delta in Mexico.

Where his project, and the river, go from here

I don’t really know that anybody can say what this is going to mean in the long term for the river. There’s a lot of negotiation and science that’s still ahead of us. I’m still getting my mind around it just looking at the photos.

Every time I go, I think this is the last time. But this last time, I just let go of that and thought, ‘I may come back.’ This is part of my life now. I’ve never really been anywhere else in Mexico. I always end up in the same spot.

I think people in general, no matter what their political stripe, believe we can actually undo some of this stuff we’ve messed up. (As Michelle’s 2000 story explained,) La Cienaga was a dried out former wetland. I guess the Bureau of Reclamation built a dam and flooded farmland and now it’s the best remaining wetland in the lower Colorado. There was something hopeful about that.

Looking back, I kind of needed something like that at that point in my life (when I started photographing the Colorado). Here’s something where there was potential for redemption. It’s something I think that still appeals to people in general – that we can redeem ourselves and life can get better. And it’s still a redemption story. All these people have been working so hard to make this happen – this pulse release and putting water back in the river that doesn’t go to the ocean any more and seeing what’ll happen.

This is still a work in progress.

Words as told to and edited by Tay Wiles, the online editor of High Country News. Photographs edited by John Trotter and Andrew Cullen, associate designer of High Country News. Trotter's Instagram username is unamericain. Correction: The original version of this story indicated that water recently released had already reached the ocean, when in fact, that water continues to make its way through the delta toward the ocean, as of April 15.

Alexander Clayton
Alexander Clayton Subscriber
Apr 11, 2014 10:34 PM
This is great to finally see, and a good year to do it with all of our snowpack this winter. Unfortunately, it's only a temporary return for the Colorado to the delta and the Gulf of California/Sea of Cortez. Some great pics on Nat'l Geo's site as well.
Jeff Kennedy
Jeff Kennedy
Apr 30, 2014 10:36 AM
"it flowed into Mexico for the first time in decades."

In fact, as clearly visible in Google Earth's historical imagery, water has flowed into Mexico many times in previous decades (imagery from 2/6/2013, for example). And of course, 100% of the Colorado River water that arrives at Morelos Dam flows into Mexico via irrigation canals.