A delta reborn in drought

 

K-K-KKSSSSCH. It was the noise we all dreaded aboard the Rusty Pickle, one of three rafts floating down the muddy San Juan River in southeast Utah. The gravelly grind – felt in the teeth as much as heard by the ears – became a regular feature as our boats beached on sandbar after sandbar, forcing us to stow our PBRs and disembark, splashing and pulling until we found the current.

It certainly gave us a visceral awareness of the ongoing drought. When we put on in Bluff, Utah, on Aug. 15, 2011, flows on this Colorado River tributary measured 560 cubic feet per second; seven days later, they were scraping by at 530 – less than a third of the historical mean for the month.

The last 14 years comprise the driest such period in 108 years of record keeping on the Colorado, whose waters serve 35 million people in seven states and Mexico. As the drought has deepened, longtime High Country News correspondent Matt Jenkins has penned several cover stories on it, going beyond the frustrations of beer-swilling boaters to examine its impacts on Southwestern growth and the complex body of agreements and court rulings that govern the Colorado's distribution.

The picture that emerges is of a water supply tightening like a fist. Because the 1922 compact that divvied up the Colorado was created during an unusually wet period, it promises about 2 million more acre-feet per year than the river can reliably offer – and that's before accounting for climate change. In 2005, Jenkins covered Las Vegas' bold bid to augment its paltry share with a massive groundwater-pumping project that could dry up many of the state's rural valleys. Four years later, he reported on the shocking discovery that the state of Colorado has far less water available than it needs to supply projected growth. And in 2007, he wrote about water managers' desperate attempts to plug every leak in the vast plumbing system that delivers the river's water. Jenkins' cover story in this issue is about an unintended victim of that effort: the Colorado River Delta, across the border in Mexico, which, after being all but dried out by the big dams on the Colorado's mainstem, hung onto a flicker of life thanks to water leaching through the ground from unlined canals.

Transformed from thriving forests to vast mudflats, the Delta demonstrates the ravages of overuse and drought much more vividly than the San Juan. And yet, even as the Southwest teeters on the edge of a radically drier future, a rare opportunity to revive the Delta has emerged in an agreement hashed out between Mexico, the U.S. and some of West's most powerful – and thirsty – water agencies. But the very drought that spurred the deal may also be its undoing, leaving long-fought Delta restoration efforts to run aground. K-K-KKSSSSCH, indeed.