Four women joyride the flood that will revive the Colorado River Delta

 

Page 2


The magic disappearing island of Baja, Nevada.

When we arrived back at the river, we found not a tidy camp, but Laura and Sarahlee stripped from the waist down, wading out of what appeared to be much deeper, much faster water than we had left behind. The beach where we had casually left out a table, food bags and soft cooler had become river, the tree where we had tied our kayaks now well within its current. “I looked over from where I was paddling and the island was GONE!” Laura exclaimed as she and Sarahlee pulled our boats to the new shore. They pantomimed the harrowing process of fishing our gear from eddies and paddling it back upstream; somehow, they got all of it save Sarahlee’s beloved tea mug, a water-tight steel cylinder that’s traveled with her on river expeditions down the Grand Canyon, the Nile, the Futaleufu. But we’d take this, too, we decided. Against all odds, we had lost and regained both our stove and our food. “Winning!” We cried, pumping our fists some more.

And we aimed to keep winning, so we set our first camp far up the sidecanyon. As I filtered drinking water into our bottles that night, dangling my feet from a shelf of rock, the river rose and fell slowly, rhythmically, as if breathing – climbing over my toes, sliding up my shins, curving around my knees, pulling away, and again.

The following night, we were even more careful, setting camp in a sandy depression in a rock outcropping high above the river, which had the added bonus of shielding us from sight and earshot of a dozen or so canoeists camped at the mouth of the new sidecanyon below us. After dinner, we ate cookies on a little spit of basalt, watching with interest as the water began to climb again. First one foot. Then two. We looked over at our kitchen, set on a shelf several vertical feet below our sleeping bags, but still a few vertical feet above the river. Was it high enough? The water fingered its way up the rocks. Three feet now, and still rising in the deepening dark. We shuffled gear, shuffled it again, as the river crept over the small fire ring that had been under our table only an hour before.

Our cozy cubby hole in an outcrop well above the floodwaters.

Four feet, and acrid smoke from a river-swamped campfire flooded our outcropping. We peeked over the rocks to find our neighbors busily moving their tents, tables, chairs, coolers, even their flotilla of canoes, as the water poured slowly up their canyon. Their second campfire suddenly lifted into the air, floating backwards into the willows as they carried it to higher ground in its firepan. The sight was so surreal – a campfire appearing to move under its own power through the dark like a tiny flying saucer aflame – that I let out a guffaw, and several headlamps swiveled our way. We ducked, and Laura punched me in the arm. “You’re a terrible spy!” she hissed.

Later, as we slept in a pig pile beneath the stars, a light appeared from the rocks above us and scanned our faces, startling us blinking back awake. “Is everything okay?” I asked the disembodied light blearily. “Yes, yes,” the older man wearing it said, his glasses glinting weirdly as he informed us that his group had had to move their camp not one, but three times. “Are you staying dry?” he asked, hoping to commiserate. Before we could respond, though, he inexplicably disappeared into our kitchen for a few minutes to survey our setup, then sauntered back and plopped down as if this were a great time to chat: “Have you heard of Minute 319?”

It was an absurdly random thing to ask a group of sleeping women at 11 p.m. Being the argumentative know-it-all that I am, though, I propped up on my elbows, slid on my glasses, and engaged. Why, yes I had, I said, feeling Laura stiffen beside me, likely preparing another punch.

Just last fall, I edited a feature story about Minute 319 by former High Country News contributing editor Matt Jenkins. The landmark agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, finalized in late 2012, is meant to bring life back to the Colorado’s vast delta at the Sea of Cortez. The river is so overallocated, serving more than 35 million people on both sides of the border, that it has rarely reached the ocean over the past 50 years. But it once fed 3,000 square miles of cottonwood- and willow-shaded wetlands, pools and channels that sustained armies of birds and fish. A record flood of water in the epic snowpack year of 1983 revived it for a bit. Minute 319 aims to do the same, with a big pulse of water sent down the river from the very dams that have choked its flow. The simulated flood will hopefully jumpstart the ecosystem, and smaller pulses over the next five years, sustain its recovery.

Could these crazy river conditions be Minute 319? the man wanted to know. Surely the guides would have told us that, I responded, scraping my sleepy mind for a clear recollection of timing, and besides, I thought the flood was in April? Los Angeles had probably just turned on all its lights and hairdryers at once or something. And also, Alison broke in, we’d like to go back to sleep now. Goodnight? Finally taking the hint, he rose hastily and skulked away.

But the water failed to rise that much again for the rest of our blissful trip, even during the electricity frenzy that is Friday night. By the time I had arrived home to Paonia, Colo., that weekend and plugged back into the Interbrain, it was clear that our awkward visitor was right. We had unwittingly drifted atop, been flooded out by, drank from, and swam in one of the most momentous events in recent environmental history. Winning, indeed.

After sending us reeling the previous Wednesday and Thursday, those big pulses of water from Hoover had traveled more than 340 river miles southwest to the Morelos Dam on the international border. And on Sunday, March 23, officials opened the gates and loosed them into Mexico.

Matt Jenkins is on those newly flooding stretches of river as I write, documenting the water’s trickle back into its southerly veins and arteries, the Delta’s slow stretching of limbs back into life. When I called him this week to check in about how he plans to write up his findings for HCN (stay tuned for that next week), I filled him in on our trip mishaps. He laughed, we set a deadline. “Oh hey,” he added as I got ready to hang up, “I’ll keep an eye out for that mug.”

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!