The Colorado River’s reunion with its usually bone-dry Delta

by Gary Wockner

They kissed. Like two long-lost lovers who had been cruelly kept apart for 20 years, the Colorado River and the Sea of Cortez finally embraced. The historic reunion occurred this May as the United States and Mexico worked together to restore the Colorado River Delta.

The “pulse flow” of water raced down from Lake Mead, boiled over Morelos Dam at the border and gently flooded the bone-dry Colorado River Delta. Overhead, a helicopter followed the journey, a photographer recording the historic mingling.

Our messy human concoctions of cities, farms and power plants had drained the river dry, so it took human intervention to return some water to the lower river. If the damming of the Colorado River and draining of the Delta symbolized the failure of the North American environmental movement, this attempt at restoration symbolizes the exact opposite. Yet the job has only just begun, as the pulse flow to bring the Delta to life has ended, and the hard work of buying more water begins.

Our untidy and complicated arrangements are still at work up and down the entire Colorado River. At the very same moment in history when we are working hard to find ways to restore the Delta, almost every state and local agency is determined to drain even more water from the river:

Everyone’s trying to capture the last legally allowed drop. And, of course, climate change has entered the fray with its own agenda, which may topple all of our schemes. Yet I am optimistic.

A few weeks ago, I stood in the Delta and watched the Colorado River crawl toward me through the sand.  A small team of us had walked a mile to see the river emerge, and when it happened I was speechless.  As the water edged to my toes, it felt cool as it engulfed my feet even though it had traveled miles over 100-degree desert sand. It almost smelled like the snow-capped Colorado mountains that I’d flown over just the day before.

As the Colorado River kissed the Sea of Cortez, I felt it suffuse the environmental community with a sense of hope and passion. Social media of the event quickly came alive with photos and posts that went viral, the mainstream media covered the story for days afterwards, and river lovers felt they’d scored a rare victory.

There’s no denying that environmental advocates are an odd breed.  We fight the apocalypse every day and we almost never win, and in the end few of us even expect to. Pessimism becomes a way of life. So whenever a victory is scored, it buoys our hopes.  Give us an inch, we’ll run for a mile. Give us a little shot of hope, and we’ll fight for years in the trenches. There’s an amazing amount of work to do to further protect and restore the Colorado River, and there’s an amazing cadre of people lined up to do it.

So if you are involved with Denver Water, or Northern Water, or are part of an organization proposing yet another dam or pipeline, you should consider what you’re up against. You have “plans” and “strategies,” you have sprawling suburbs and Chambers of Commerce demanding more water. You have elected officials spouting off about the need for growth.

What do we have? Hopes, dreams, passions and lawyers, and a river that has once again met its sea. A long-overdue and beautiful reunion -- sealed with a kiss.

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He coordinates the Save The Colorado River Campaign, which works to protect and restore the Colorado River from the source to the sea.  Gary@SaveTheColorado.org

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