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Know the West

New Hope for the Delta

During the worst drought in more than a century, the Colorado River may flow to the sea once more.


Updated 1/17/14

Just outside the dusty Mexican town of Carranza, Francisco Zamora wheels his Toyota pickup off the highway and down a gravel road along an irrigation canal. To one side, irregular farm fields flash by, fringed with reeds, sunflowers and an occasional shaggy palm. On the other side lies the bone-dry bed of the Colorado River. Straitjacketed between two levees roughly a mile apart and choked with mean, gray-green tamarisk, or salt cedar, it nonetheless has an emphatic presence – like a prehistoric creature waiting to rumble back to life.

It's hard to imagine that, a century ago, wetlands and impenetrable cottonwood, willow and mesquite forests covered nearly 2 million acres here. After Aldo Leopold visited in 1922, he rhapsodized about the Delta's "hundred green lagoons," where the river twisted and split and braided together again before finally disappearing into the Gulf of California. Huge freshwater flows, powerful saltwater tides barreling up from the Gulf, and millions of tons of rich sediment converged to make the Delta an unlikely Eden on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. Home to more than 350 species of birds, it was a key part of the Pacific Flyway, a wild, immense and occasionally magical dreamscape prowled by jaguars and exploding with waterfowl.

But a series of big dams upstream gradually strangled the Delta. First came Hoover, in 1937. Just seven years later, Godfrey Sykes, an explorer and engineer who followed in Leopold's footsteps, likened the now-harnessed river to "a bird in a cage, or an animal in a zoo." In 1950, Mexico's Morelos Dam went into operation. And finally, in 1963, Glen Canyon Dam began impounding any leftover water to create Lake Powell.

Those formidable waterworks, along with the many smaller dams and diversions built throughout the Colorado's 224,000-square-mile drainage area, have transformed the river into a gigantic water-supply system for Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. The Delta, meanwhile, has shrunk to less than one-tenth of its original size; over the past 50 years, the river has only occasionally reached the sea. And the stranglehold has tightened over the past 14 years, as the river suffers through its worst drought in more than a century.

But even as the drought has dragged on, Zamora, who works for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Sonoran Institute, and compatriots from several other environmental organizations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, have patiently tended to the last 90 miles of the river. Zamora's field outfit – sunhat, nylon hiking pants, fly-fishing shirt and binoculars – is classic birdwatcher, and he speaks with thoughtful reserve. He and his colleagues have hired workers from nearby towns to plant a small network of native forests, nurturing them with small amounts of water purchased from local farmers.

"It's not easy, because it's not a lot of water," he says. "We've had to do the best we can."

But that's about to change.

Last November, after five years of remarkable negotiations that unfolded far from the Delta, representatives from the U.S. and Mexico agreed to a complex, multi-part water deal that will give them desperately needed flexibility for weathering the drought. More surprisingly, the two nations will join the team of environmental organizations to release a flood of more than 105,000 acre-feet of water – 3.8 million big-rig tankers' worth – into the Delta's ancient floodplain, and chase it with a smaller, permanent annual flow to sustain the ecosystem.

It is the unlikeliest of times to pull off a deal like this. Rather than hoarding all the water for themselves in this drought –– the river supplies some 35 million people –– the West's largest water agencies have pledged to send some all the way to the sea. That move is, to some extent, a long-overdue acknowledgment that the U.S. bears responsibility for the impacts its dams have caused beyond its borders. And after years of fruitless court fights in the U.S. by environmental groups, the Mexican government finally insisted that water for the Delta be a cornerstone of the broader deal.

"This wasn't just an afterthought," says a U.S. negotiator. "This was integral to the negotiations."

But Delta restoration is still far from assured. If the drought deepens, as many fear it will, the surprising alliances that led to the deal will be tested as never before. The Delta's champions are anxiously racing against time and the drought to lay the groundwork for what they hope will become a permanent commitment to restoration, before the window to return water to the Delta closes – perhaps forever.

"It has been," Zamora says, "a pretty busy summer."

In November 1980, the writer Philip Fradkin kayaked into the Delta and floundered through an apocalyptic landscape that pushed him to the edge of panic. Starved of water for more than four decades, the lush forests had given way to vast, desolate mudflats. Fradkin recounted his nightmarish journey in his book A River No More, which stands as a kind of epitaph for the Delta.

That same year, Lake Powell – after slowly impounding 8.5 trillion gallons of water over the previous 17 years – finally filled to the brim. Soon after, a strong, wet El Niño weather system took hold of the West. In 1983, winter storms dumped so much precipitation into the Colorado River Basin that its dams couldn't hold back all the spring meltwater. To keep Glen Canyon Dam from disintegrating, engineers opened its spillways and sent 3.6 million acre-feet blasting downstream. And so, as Fradkin wrote in an updated version of his book, "The river momentarily roared back to life and punched its way through to the Gulf of California."

Ed Glenn happened to be down in the Delta when the flood ripped through. "The levees all failed and the water went everywhere," recalls the University of Arizona biologist. "I saw water from one edge of the Delta to the other."

In the years afterward, Glenn worked primarily in a nearby marsh called the Ciénega de Santa Clara, and didn't think much about what was happening in the Delta itself. But in 1992, as he was leaving Mexico for Tucson aboard a private aircraft, "we decided to fly the plane up the river."

Where he had expected to see only mudflats, Glenn saw something astounding. "Those trees," he remembers thinking, "aren't supposed to be there."

Intrigued, he secured a grant from NASA, enlisted the help of several colleagues and began, as he puts it, "just gradually putting the story together."

During the early and mid-'80s, El Niño had consistently sent water roaring down into the Delta and fanning out across its floodplain. And the dynamics that drove life there for millions of years suddenly revived: As those pulses of water receded and evaporated, seeds rained down from remnant stands of cottonwoods and willows, landed in the moist soil of the floodplain, and sprouted.

"The roots can grow an inch a day," Glenn says, "so they're able to follow the drying soil down to the water table. By the end of the first year, they're tapped in." Less than a year after a flood, seedlings can reach six or seven feet; by the end of the second year, they're as tall as 35 feet.

With this revelation, Glenn, Zamora and their allies began campaigning to raise awareness about the possibilities of restoring the Delta, patiently lobbying for a dedicated flow of water. At the same time, other groups pushed harder.

In 2000, Defenders of Wildlife and several other environmental organizations sued the U.S. government, arguing that it was ignoring the harm its dams were causing to endangered birds, such as the southwest willow flycatcher and Yuma clapper rail, which are protected under U.S. law but also live across the border, in the Delta. In court, the U.S. successfully argued that its obligations under the Endangered Species Act stop at the border, and that the so-called "law of the river" – the complex body of agreements, treaties and court cases that governs the Colorado – is so ironclad that the government lacks "discretionary authority" to provide water for the Delta.

Yet the government did compromise slightly. In December 2000, the U.S. and Mexico signed an amendment to the 1944 treaty that stipulates how the river's water is divided between the two countries. Known as Minute 306, the agreement offered a first, tentative acknowledgment of the Delta's ecological importance, as the two nations pledged to "formulate recommendations for cooperative projects concerning the Colorado River Delta in Mexico."

But Minute 306 appeared just as the drought set in. In 2000, Lake Powell received just 62 percent of its annual average inflow. In 2001, inflow was 59 percent of average. Then, in 2002, it plunged to a mere 25 percent of average. Water managers shifted into crisis mode and launched an effort to plug every leak in the system, repair any remaining inefficiencies, and intercept every last drop of runaway water that was slipping across the border – the very same water that was keeping the Delta alive.

The main target of that push was the All-American Canal, which carries water along the U.S.-Mexico border from the Colorado River to farmers in Southern California. Some 190,000 acre-feet of water – more than the city of Tucson uses – seeped from the canal into the ground each year. So, in 2003, U.S. water agencies announced they would spend $300 million to line it with concrete.

There was a hitch, though: Almost all of that leaking water flowed to farms and wetlands in Mexico's Mexicali Valley. Mexico fought to stop the project, and the battle dragged on in court for three years. Believing legal resolution was hopeless, the water agencies turned to Congress. And on Dec. 8, 2006, legislators passed a rider to a tax-and-healthcare bill that ordered the project forward – a political poke in the eye for Mexico that, for good measure, also authorized a new reservoir to vacuum up any extra water that may have inadvertently slipped away toward Mexico and the Delta.

Not surprisingly, as the drought deepened – and the system on the U.S. side of the border got tighter and tighter – less and less spring floodwater reached the Delta. "We were losing trees, and we were losing good habitat," says Zamora. "So we decided that we had to do something."

Beginning in 2002, he and Osvel Hinojosa, a 38-year-old, pony-tailed, improbably upbeat ecologist from the Mexican environmental group Pronatura, cobbled together money for a series of small-scale restoration projects. The pair became increasingly well-versed in the nuances of grant-writing and heavy equipment contracting. They rented backhoes to rip out tamarisk; leveled land with laser-guided mechanized graders; installed irrigation systems; and tended cottonwood, willow and mesquite seedlings by hand in a nursery in Carranza, before driving them out to the river, where local crews carefully planted them.

Zamora and Hinojosa envisioned a network of demonstration projects that would not only provide a functioning ecological corridor within the Delta, but also help people understand what an even more ambitious restoration effort might look like. The sites were small, says Zamora, "but once people saw them, they wanted to see more."

Replanting native forest was just part of the challenge. The bigger one was reintroducing the force that energized the Delta's natural dynamics: Water.

And so, even as the water agencies labored to ensure that no "fugitive" water escaped across the border, Hinojosa's boss, Pronatura director Martín Gutiérrez, successfully lobbied to change Mexican law so that nonprofit environmental organizations could purchase water for environmental restoration. In 2008, Pronatura, the Sonoran Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund formed the Colorado River Delta Water Trust, which has subsequently purchased some 3,200 acre-feet of water from local farmers to irrigate the trees in a web of restoration sites that now exceeds 800 acres. The thick cottonwood and willow forests began to spring to life with birds, including long-vanished species like the yellow-billed cuckoo and yellow-breasted chat.

But truly restarting the ecological heart of the Delta was going to take another tremendous pulse of spring floodwater, like the ones that had come charging downriver during the '80s. And to make that happen, the environmental groups had to find a way into the inner sanctum of the river's mighty bosses.

The three most powerful urban water agencies in the Western U.S. are the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies Los Angeles and San Diego, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas, and the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Phoenix and Tucson. As the drought wore on, the Big Three faced a deepening crisis.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead are essentially gigantic emergency water reserves: Together, they hold four years' worth of the river's average flow. But by 2007, both were nearly half empty. That spurred the Big Three's bosses to develop a set of shortage-prevention measures – voluntary conservation strategies to slow the reservoirs' fall and keep levels from dropping to the point where the system couldn't supply enough water to meet each state's yearly needs.

The crisis was part of a bigger problem that has long plagued the river: Bad math. The foundation of the law of the river, the 1922 Colorado River Compact, assumes that an average of 16.8 million acre-feet of water is available each year. But the river's actual long-term average flow is about 13 percent less. And computer models suggest that climate change will deepen that shortfall by another 10 to 30 percent by mid-century.

Shackled together by the very river whose water they had long reveled in fighting over, the water bosses began realizing that they might have more to gain through cooperation than through warfare. They also recognized that, to spread the impacts of the drought and soften the blow to their own agencies, they had to convince Mexico to agree to share in future shortages.

"That," says Patricia Mulroy, the blunt-spoken head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, "was all-important to us."

U.S. water agencies have traditionally refused to concede any responsibility for the damage that Colorado River dams and efficiency projects have done to Mexico's environment and agriculture. "Any impacts that were felt south of the border were just not considered," says Kara Gillon, who represented Defenders of Wildlife in its 2000 case against the U.S. government. "It was like a no-man's land."

But as the drought worsened, those same agencies increasingly appreciated that Mexico might be a land of opportunity. "They were running out of places to find water," says Gillon. "And Mexico was the one place that they haven't really squeezed every last drop out of yet."

In fact, since the early 1990s, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California had contemplated the possibility of some kind of cross-border water swap. It could provide funding to help Mexican irrigation districts tighten their relatively inefficient water systems, thereby allowing them to grow the same crops using less water. In exchange, Metropolitan would increase its own water use upstream, in the U.S., by a corresponding amount.

During the summer of 2007, the Big Three agencies began quietly reaching out to their Mexican counterparts. Pete Silva, a scout for Metropolitan with long experience on both sides of the border, joined forces with Tom Carr from the Central Arizona Project and Bill Rinne from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who died this August, to assemble what Silva dubbed, with some irony, a "strike team."

"There were a lot of hard feelings after the All-American Canal showdown," he says. But bad droughts can make for surprising alliances, and there was "just a feeling that somebody had to do something" to patch up relations with Mexico.

At the same time, a brainy, number-crunching analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund named Jennifer Pitt – a woman with a seemingly pathological drive to decipher the river's byzantine operational mechanics – began forging another set of informal partnerships across the border. Pitt, too, was focused on finding ways to free up water, but with a different goal: using it to restore the Colorado River Delta.

She also recognized that the Delta's champions needed to think more broadly. Six years after Minute 306 had been signed, conditions had only gotten worse. "Minute 306 demonstrated that it's very hard to get traction if you're just talking about the environment," she says.  "It started becoming clear that we needed to look at what we were doing in the Delta in the context of bigger water-management decisions."

Pitt and other environmentalists taught themselves how to think like water bosses. She learned the computer program used to model drought scenarios, and began turning out a series of proposals that would help urban water managers weather the drought while also directing water toward the Delta.

But Pitt needed an ally to push the Delta's cause with the Mexican government. She found one in a Tijuana professor and researcher named Carlos de la Parra, who had served stints as a regional head of Mexico's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, and as the environmental attaché at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Both jobs left him with close ties to leaders in the upper echelons of Mexico's federal environmental and water-management agencies.

"Carlos helped boost our ability not just to understand what (Mexican government officials) were thinking, but to seed some ideas to them as well," Pitt says. "I keenly felt the need (to have a counterpart) in Mexico, to know what's making them tick, and figure out how we could align the Delta with the rest of what they want."

In August 2007, then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., announced that representatives of the two governments were beginning discussions about the river. The announcement marked the formal start of a five-year process that would culminate in a new amendment to the U.S.-Mexico water treaty, officially known as Minute 319.

As the talks progressed, de la Parra came to serve – one Mexican government official says with a laugh – as "plenipotentiary advisor" to that country's negotiating team. De la Parra and his counterparts within Mexico's water and environmental agencies helped push high-level government decision-makers past decades of indifference about what happened upstream in the U.S.

"For Mexico, the Colorado River had been the equivalent of a faucet stuck on the wall," says de la Parra. "That faucet had been delivering 1.5 million acre-feet a year" – the country's legal entitlement under the U.S.-Mexico treaty – "for almost 70 years. Why would Mexico want to look past that wall and see what was behind it?"

But as the drought ground on, he says, "Mexico realized that it needed to confront reality."

Mexico's water bosses understood that they were poorly prepared to weather the increasingly volatile climatic conditions that were also distressing their counterparts upstream. In the wide, flat Delta, there aren't many places to build a reservoir. But there was plenty of space free in lakes Powell and Mead for Mexico to "bank" water for the day that country might really need it.

A broader deal began to suggest itself. If Mexico agreed to share in shortages, argued negotiators such as Mario López, the head of international affairs for that nation's federal water agency, it should also be eligible for any future surplus water. "We said, 'We don't want the discussion to be focused only on the shortage situation,' " says López. "We need to see it as a whole."

The cornerstone of Mexico's negotiating package was water for the Colorado River Delta. Felipe Calderón, who had become president of Mexico in December 2006, brought a new, more pro-environment attitude to the federal government. Almost immediately, Calderón put José Luis Luege – a man with a solid track record as head of Mexico's environment and natural resources department – in charge of the country's federal water agency.

"The first priority for Mexico is to protect and to conserve the environment," says López. "It was state policy to push very hard on this" under Calderón.

Mexico's negotiators figured out that they could use citizen support for restoring the Delta to uphold their larger cause. "When Mexico starts talking in favor of environmental flows, it knows that it's got allies within the U.S.," says de la Parra. "In many ways, it is not negotiating country-to-country: It's negotiating on behalf of a value that is important on both sides of the border."

And the Delta's advocates had done their homework. During negotiations, they supported their argument for a Delta flood with modeling and probability analysis – the same tools water bosses used daily to understand the odds of going dry.

"Having solid science behind it helped a lot," says Hinojosa. He and his colleagues were able to show that the kind of water release they were proposing would require far less than 1 percent of the river's average annual flow.

"It didn't create major risks, in terms of shortage" to large water users like the Big Three, he says. "It was not a crazy, undoable proposal."

In early 2012, the negotiations were edging into their fifth year. Mexico initially proposed that Minute 319 run through 2026, but U.S. negotiators countered with a proposal to limit the agreement to just five years, through December 2017. Mexico agreed, but then turned to the environmental coalition for a specific, and robust, package of Delta flows. The team responded with a two-part proposal: A one-time, 105,392 acre-foot "pulse flow" to trigger tree germination and the creation of additional wetlands, backed up with a permanent 52,696 acre-foot annual "base flow" to maintain the new growth.

"We put up as much water as we thought we needed to be absolutely sure it is going to reach the mouth of the river," says de la Parra. "And the Mexican government said, 'We'll go for it.' "

Mexico committed to providing half of the pulse flow. But getting U.S. negotiators to provide the other half required devising a way to bridge a deep philosophical divide over whose water would actually be used for the effort. U.S. water bosses refused to send water to Mexico for use in the Delta, fearing it would wind up irrigating Mexican farms instead.

"We were crystal-clear from Day One," says Pat Mulroy. "If water was going to the Delta, it was going to be Mexican water – period."

So they proposed a workaround: The U.S. agencies would provide financing to improve the water-supply system in the Mexicali Valley, primarily by making canals there more watertight. The water saved through those improvements would – while technically part of Mexico's 1.5 million acre-feet cut of the river – count as the U.S. contribution to the Delta.

But that proposal, in turn, proved tough for Mexico to swallow. "Mexico saw that the U.S. was putting up cash, and called it 'paper water,' " says de la Parra. "The negotiators for Mexico knew that it wasn't going to be easy to sell it within the country. Cash wasn't enough."

The ultimate breakthrough hinged on a commitment by U.S. agencies to help Mexico stretch its water supplies farther than ever. The two countries agreed on a $1.7 billion laundry list of possible future water-supply projects, including desalination plants in Mexico. More importantly, at least in the short term, U.S. water agencies pledged to make $21 million in water-efficiency investments in the Mexicali Valley.

In exchange, they'll receive more than 175,000 acre-feet of water over the next five years – roughly a third of which will be earmarked as the U.S.'s portion of the pulse flow. After that, Mexico will receive all the water freed by the U.S.-financed improvements to its irrigation system.

"We get the front part of that (water-efficiency) yield," says the Central Arizona Project's Chuck Cullom, "and then for the next 30 or 40 years, the continued savings goes to Mexico."

Finally, on Nov. 20, 2012, after several months of intense, face-to-face final discussions, the negotiators met at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego and signed Minute 319.

The meetings had blurred traditional lines in water politics, giving conservation organizations unprecedented access to decision-making about the river's future. And, as Pitt points out, international negotiations proved to be a realm in which many conventional environmentalist tactics – such as using lawsuits to force change – simply don't work.

"Those tools aren't there, because you can't apply them across the border into another country," she says. "Everything has to be through consensus; there's no rolling anybody."

The agreement also gives conservation organizations much of the responsibility for turning their vision of a restored Delta into reality, and for contributing the 52,696 acre-foot yearly base flow. "This agreement obligates the NGO community to put up one-third of the water – as much water as the U.S. or Mexico is putting up," says de la Parra. To raise the roughly $10 million necessary to buy that water and carry out additional restoration and monitoring, the Sonoran Institute, Pronatura and the Environmental Defense Fund have partnered with The Nature Conservancy, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Redford Center.

The agreement also – in roundabout fashion – addresses many of the issues central to the endangered-species legal battles at the turn of the millennium. The water-efficiency investments that the Big Three have pledged to make in Mexico will free up additional water for their own use. But they will also help improve water supply, and habitat, for species that are endangered in the U.S. – and help keep the Big Three off the hook for liability under the Endangered Species Act.

"Restoring the Delta is important for the U.S., too," says Zamora. "When you think about the amount of money that the U.S. is investing in (recovery) programs for some of these species, a little bit of investment in Mexico makes a lot of sense."

Although Minute 319 will be relatively short-lived, it was fashioned as a launch pad for a longer-term successor agreement, and the Delta's champions hope they can show enough success over the coming several years to win a bigger commitment to restoring the Delta. Still, the Big Three have been  careful to not commit to too much.

"It's still very touchy," says Silva. "The concern by the U.S. states was to not make a long-term commitment. Minute 319 is very carefully written."

Roberto Salmón is the head of the Mexican branch of the International Boundary and Water Commission, under whose auspices the negotiations were officially carried out. Salmón's office, in Ciudad Juárez, is just a quarter-mile south of the arsenal of steel fence, surveillance towers and Border Patrol vehicles that the U.S. has deployed along the border it shares with Mexico.

That fearsome bulwark stands in contrast to the increasing openness between both countries' Colorado River water bosses. "The Delta is part of the (Colorado River) system. And it doesn't matter whether it's in Mexico, or in China, or wherever – if it's part of the system, we all have to take care of it," says Salmón. "It was important for everyone to realize that we share a common resource – that the world doesn't end at the borderline."

This is the moment of greatest promise for the Delta since the rise of the big dams, over 75 years ago. The river's water bosses have morphed their positions tremendously since the beginning of the 21st century. Ironically, this would probably never have happened but for the drought.

"It made them loosen their grip on the strict law-of-the-river interpretations that they held for so long," says Gillon. "They get a lot more flexible when there's a drought."

In August, the U.S. government announced that—under the terms of an agreement between the seven U.S. states—it will reduce water deliveries to Lake Mead, the main source of water for Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson, and a significant source for Los Angeles and San Diego, by about 9 percent next year. That will accelerate the drop in Mead's water level toward 1,075 feet above sea level, the trigger for an official shortage declaration by the U.S. secretary of the Interior. There is a fifty-fifty chance of a shortage in 2016, and the odds will only get worse in the years that follow.

"Everyone knew this day was going to come," says Pitt. "But nobody really expected conditions to go south so quickly."

If a shortage is declared before the end of Minute 319 in 2017, it's extremely unlikely that a pulse flow could be released for the Delta. And so, Zamora and Hinojosa's teams are scrambling to prepare for a pulse flow this coming April.

They are racing to map the Delta with laser altimetry, to better understand how the released water might behave. Zamora is deploying even more heavy equipment to clear tamarisk from the floodplain and open pathways for the water to flow into the river's old meanders. Under Minute 319, an additional 2,300 acres will be restored throughout the Delta. This year, Zamora and his compatriots boosted the 800 acres of forest they've already restored with another 30,000 cottonwood and willow trees, which will provide a source of seeds for the pulse flow.

On a 114-degree day this summer, Zamora walked with a local project manager named Guadalupe Fonseca at a demonstration site some 50 miles downstream from where the river crosses into Mexico. They were in the process of repurposing some of the local irrigation district's canals as water-delivery points for the Delta. A few days earlier, a backhoe had scratched out a new ditch – just part of the bigger infrastructure they're laying in preparation for next year's flood.

They needed to test the ditch, so Fonseca removed an improvised dirt check dam with a quick twist of a shovel. A thin sheet of water slowly sizzled forward, finding its way along the contours of the channel like flame, pushing ahead a scummy froth as it sought the river from which it had been turned. Several hours later, Zamora peered over the edge of a berm and watched the water cascade into a pool that was slowly rising in the thick bosque of an old meander.

"This hasn't been easy. But if it works," he said, "it's going to go into the history books."

Matt Jenkins has covered Western water politics since 2001, Year Two of the Colorado River drought. He writes from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.