Symbolic Victory for Endangered River

The Colorado River was named America's Most Endangered Waterway for 2013 by American Rivers, a leading non-profit dedicated to the conservation of rivers and riparian areas across the US.  This is not entirely unexpected, as the river has suffered from drought, overuse, overallocation, and poor water conservation for years.   The once-mighty river is now tamed by dams and diversions from its headwaters high in the Rockies to the desert border with Mexico.   In fact, the river has only had enough flow to reach its formerly biologically diverse estuary a few times since the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963.

The Colorado and its tributaries get used by rafters, fishermen, kayakers, canyoneers, wildlife enthusiasts, bird watchers, and those simply seeking water in the arid Southwest.  Its water is truly the lifeblood of  the region, sustaining development, agriculture, and recreation where there otherwise would be none. Colorado River water is a necessity for desert cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles to exist, supplying drinking water to 36 million people, and irrigating a vast area of nearly 4 million acres where 15 percent of the nation's crops are grown.  The demand for water in this region has steadily grown over the last 40 years, and despite huge storage reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, there is greater call for water than the river can supply.  This shortage is compounded by a persistent drought, inefficient irrigation practices, and outdated municipal water management.  There is simply not enough water in the river to satisfy all the users, let alone for recreation or environmental concerns.  The river that carves the Grand Canyon, and flows for nearly 1500 miles through the most iconic landscapes of the American West has been tapped out.  

Despite all the demands placed on the great river, there may be a glimmer of hope for the future.  The Colorado River flowed to the sea for the first time since the 1990's in the spring of 2014.  A bi-national agreement between the US and Mexico allowed a pulse of water to flow from the last dam on the river to the delta, in an effort to resurrect the rich wetlands that once flourished on the silt-laden spring flows, and supported abundant wildlife.  The pulse flow released was less than 1 percent of historic spring flows, and re-watered just a tiny part of the nearly 2 million acre delta, but comes as a welcome surprise to scientists, who were hoping to merely provide enough water to reestablish vegetation and offer migratory birds suitable habitat.  Pre-dam flows pushed huge amounts of nutrient-rich fresh water and silt into the estuary on the Gulf of California, creating fisheries teeming with shrimp, fish, and larger predators like the tiny vaquita porpoise.  While the flows reaching the estuary because of the bi-national agreement will not return the ecosystem to pre-dam levels, the Colorado River Delta Water Trust has purchased voluntary water releases from delta farmers to provide a sustaining base flow after the pulse flow.  The base flow should allow plants and trees to have enough water to become established and survive until the pulse flow occurs again in the next spring.  The agreement is scheduled to last 5 years.  There is no telling if the waters will once again reach the sea, but there will be enough to allow plants and animals to maintain their tenuous foothold in this formerly verdant desert aquatic ecosystems.  This bodes well for the future of the delta and estuary, and gives the Colorado River a symbolic victory it badly needs.   



Colorado River Grand Canyon
Credit: public domain