Dispatch from Mexico: a historic pulse of water to restore the delta

 

Just south of the Mexican border town of Los Algodones, last Thursday dawned with a whipping breeze. Maintenance workers hustled to sweep, shovel dust and repaint the yellow speed bumps in the road alongside Mexico’s main Colorado River dam, named for the patriot José María Morelos, who was executed by Spain in 1815 for his role in the Mexican War of Independence.

The workers were preparing the facility for a wave of Mexican and U.S. dignitaries, who soon arrived to commemorate a landmark international water deal. Since the early 1960s, water has — thanks to an aggressive program of dam building upstream — only occasionally reached the delta at the mouth of the Colorado River. But Minute 319 — an amendment to a U.S.-Mexico water treaty — calls for, among other things, the release of a “pulse flow,” a substantial shot of water to boost the delta’s suffering riparian ecosystem.

delt4.jpg
The Colorado River dissolves into the Gulf of California, about 90 miles south of Morelos Dam.

After a long round of speechifying, the U.S. officials would be chauffeured through the Colorado River Delta in what locals referred to, with considerable amusement, as “el convoy” — an armada of five-ton, bulletproof Suburbans seconded from the Tijuana consulate. Yet in spite of all the bureaucratic pomp, the event felt like a week-long beach party.

That party had actually started four days earlier, when the dam keeper — shadowed by a very small dog — made his morning rounds to check that the dam’s equipment was functioning. As the sun lit a statue of José María Morelos, on the north side of the dam, a gaggle of onlookers gathered at the toe of a levee downstream. On the U.S. side of the river, a couple of Border Patrol agents stopped to keep watch.

Just after 8 a.m., with little fanfare, one of the gates on the dam opened. At first, the change was almost imperceptible. Then someone piped up, “There it goes! Right in the middle”: water boiling out from the dam. “Wow,” murmured someone else. A pair of drones, piloted by videographers, buzzed over the crowd. Several of the advisers and environmental professionals who have worked tenaciously to get water back to the Delta — among others, Osvel Hinojosa, Francisco Zamora, Yamilett Carrillo, Jennifer Pitt, Peter Culp and Carlos de la Parra — broke out bottles of champagne for a spontaneous toast. Then they did it again for the cameras.

As more and more water rushed from the dam, the onlookers tightened into a denser and denser group to avoid the rising river. Finally, a local policeman reefed on his whistle and summoned everyone to higher ground.


* * *

South of the border, the Colorado — even if dry — becomes a bewildering tangle of channels that ultimately dissolves into the Gulf of California. In A River No More, Philip Fradkin wrote: “To follow the river from Morelos Dam to the gulf is a tricky business.”

copy2_of_delt5.jpg
Water begins flowing into the Colorado River Delta from Morelos Dam on March 23, 2014.

It helps to have an airplane. The day after the release began, I met Pitt and Culp at Mexicali’s spare, dune-hugged airport, and we crammed ourselves into a Cessna flown by Bob Allen, a volunteer pilot for the nonprofit group LightHawk, a kind of environmentally-oriented barnstorming service.

Soon, we were spinning tight orbits over Morelos Dam, and began following the water downriver. Several miles downstream, we spotted the front of the pulse flow, slowly finding its way, in long, probing fingers, through the sandy riverbed.  The leading edge shimmered in the sun: water on the move. Allen cranked the Cessna Cardinal into a tight turn overhead. “Oh – I can see the water running,” he said. “Look at that. That is so cool.”

We winged our way some 90 miles downstream, along dry channels to the mouth of the river. The desolate salt flats at the foot of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir glimmered in the distance, and the Delta took on a kind of otherworldly splendor.

“Welcome to Mars,” Allen quipped over the intercom.

We flew on in silence. The world below felt like a place beyond human reach. Except, of course, that it has been dramatically reshaped by human design. Yet with the pulse flow, that world is being shaped again: perhaps not to what it once was, but into something other than what it has become.

* * *

delt3.jpg
An armada of five-ton, bulletproof Suburbans seconded from the Tijuana consulate.

Back upstream, the party continued over the next several days. The populace of the town of San Luis Río Colorado turned out at the river en masse. What had served as an improvised dune-buggy area in the long-dry riverbed became a veritable waterpark of people splashing in the newly returned river. Much of the real action, though, is happening deep in the Delta, far from where it is so easy to see.

Hydrologists and environmentalists anxiously watched a particularly dry stretch of the river dubbed “the black hole,” where some people worried that large amounts of the pulse flow might simply disappear into the sand. To stack the deck in their favor, the pulse flow’s designers used local irrigation ditches to surgically boost inflows of water at strategic points along the river channel. But scientists have also been heartened to see that the release of water was perfectly timed to catch and carry the spring “seed rain” from cottonwood and other trees along the river: Seeds were being washed from near Morelos Dam deep into the Delta, where they will germinate when the flood recedes, send their roots chasing groundwater, and help re-establish native forests. For good measure, the Mexican environmental group Pronatura and the U.S. Sonoran Institute are growing more than 100,000 trees in nurseries this year, which they will plant in the Delta, as well.

Over the past two decades, the Delta’s advocates have argued their case with perseverance, and a lot of good numbers. By monitoring the effect of the pulse flow, they’re hoping to make the case for a followup agreement — a Minute 320 — to kick off a long-term program of regular floods that mimic the natural dynamics of the river.

copy2_of_delt2.jpg
Osvel Hinojosa, with the Mexican environmental group Pronatura, and Jennifer Pitt, with the Environmental Defense Fund, celebrate the pulse flow with a bottle of champagne on March 23, 2014.

It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, and everyone recognizes that much hard work lies ahead. But one of the biggest victories has already been won, not so much in the Delta itself, but in the realm of the Colorado River’s broader politics. Some of the best minds on the river were behind this deal — some publicly, others much less so. The Delta’s champions have earned respect, and are now real participants in the river's broader politics. And they will be a fundamental part of the constant negotiation that will keep the river going into the future.

These are difficult times on the river, to be sure. Because of the 14-year drought and the sharp competition for water, this is an era of real anxiety about whether a comprehensive, long-term restoration program is politically feasible. Yet this much is assured: It will be impossible to ever again talk about the Colorado River without talking about the Delta, too.

Matt Jenkins is a contributor to High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 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!
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.