Such exciting news!
For the first time in 16 years, the Colorado River has finally reached its destination in the Gulf of California.
In fact, because of water use upstream, it’s been more like 50 years since the freshwater of the mighty Colorado has been anything more than a trickle once it arrived at the saltwater of the Gulf.
The headwaters of the Colorado, the nation’s seventh longest river, are high in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, from where it gathers strength as it channels south nearly 1,500 miles to end up passing through the wetlands of a vast delta in Mexico and out into the Gulf of California.
How Engineering Destroyed the Colorado
That, at least, is what happened for around six million years. Things changed around the 1920s, when Western states began divvying up the Colorado’s water, building dams and diverting the flow hundreds of miles, to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and other fast-growing cities.
The river now serves 30 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, with 70 percent or more of its water diverted to irrigate 3.5 million acres of cropland.
With so many people siphoning off water, the poor river can’t make it to its journey’s end.
According to Peter McBride, who followed the river from the Snowmass Mountain in Colorado, through Utah and the majestic red rocks of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona; past Las Vegas; down the Arizona-California border, the Colorado ends in a “frothy Frapuccino pit full of plastic bottles and who knows what.”
He is talking about the delta, about 90 miles away from the ocean, at the Sea of Cortez.
A Miracle Happened on May 15
On May 15, a high tide surged past a stubborn sandbar and connected the river with the Sea of Cortez, said Francisco Zamora, director of the Colorado River Delta Legacy Program for the Sonoran Institute.
How did this happen?
The reunion is the end of a 53-day journey for the long-planned Colorado River pulse flow, an artificial flood meant to restore the river’s parched delta. The water comes from an international agreement called Minute 319. The plan allocates about 1 percent of the river’s flow to a five-year experiment that will mimic spring floods in the delta. The goal is bring back the plants and animals that once thrived in the river’s outlet.
For some, the engineering of the Colorado River to bring water to ever-growing cities, as well as to farmland, may seem like a major triumph, but clearly there is something wrong when a river fails to reach its intended destination.
I’ve hiked down the Grand Canyon to camp by the Colorado’s turbulent waters, as well as enjoyed the excitement of rafting on this powerful, challenging river.
Thus, I am saddened to see what the Colorado has been looking like at the end of its journey.
There are other ominous signs: at Lake Mead, a favorite for speedboats, there are lines in the rock walls, distinct as bathtub rings, showing the water level far lower than it once was—some 130 feet lower since 2000.
A Momentous Change
So this new development is momentous.
The pulse flow was unleashed on March 23 from the Morales Dam, with scientists unsure if the water would enter the Gulf, or remain in the river’s broad delta.
“After waiting for two months, it was very exciting to see,” Zamora told LiveScience’s OurAmazingPlanet. “This pulse flow opens the door for new possibilities for restoring riparian and estuary habitats.”
After the flood ends, a lower-level “base flow” will continue through 2017 to rehydrate several restoration sites in the delta.
Zamora also believes that this amount of water, though small, could help the hundreds of bird species who nest in the Gulf, and perhaps even restore some species that have vanished from the estuary.
Let’s hope this new project can succeed, so the Colorado can once again be a mighty river, and not just a plumbing system for the West.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock