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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • 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,...