The Case for Reconnecting the Colorado River to the Sea

For every pledge to shrink one's personal water footprint, Change the Course returns 1,000 gallons of water to a depleted part of the Colorado River Basin.
(Photo: Don Smith/Getty Images)
Mar 26, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sandra Postel is Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society and cocreator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Nearly two decades ago, when I first visited the delta of the Colorado River in northwestern Mexico, I became obsessed with the idea that major rivers like the Colorado were running dry.

I knew what the Colorado Delta had once been—a 2-million-acre expanse of wetlands, lagoons, braided channels, and towering riverside cottonwoods and willows that sustained a myriad of bird and wildlife species. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold had called it a “milk-and-honey wilderness.”

But flying low over the delta on a research trip in 1996, I saw that this once lush and vast aquatic ecosystem had mostly dried out. The freshwater that had sustained it had been siphoned off to growing cities and farms in the desert Southwest. The river stopped flowing 90 miles before reaching the sea.

Yet our team also visited a wetland area called La Ciénega de Santa Clara, which had sprung up in a matter of years where salty farm drainage from Arizona was channeled south and discarded in the desiccated delta. Like an oasis in the desert, there were thousands of acres of cattail marshes and lagoons. Waterfowl were everywhere, and some 300,000 migratory birds spent their winters there.

The message was clear: Just add water to the delta, and life comes back.

But beyond this accidental wetland, I wondered back then, would the delta ever get more water?

Today, nearly 18 years later, it feels like a dream come true that this month officials and conservationists will gather at Morelos Dam on Mexico’s side of the border to celebrate the release of a “pulse flow” through the delta. Made possible by a landmark agreement called Minute 319 that was signed by the United States and Mexico in November 2012, the pulse flow will mimic the natural flood that occurred every spring prior to the construction of dams and diversions along the length of the Colorado River.

Although the volume of flow will be small—less than 1 percent of the river’s annual historic flow—it will do a great deal of ecological good, thanks to years of work and preparation by scientists and conservation groups. It will support the reproduction and growth of native cottonwoods and willows, restoring vital habitat for birds and wildlife. It will scour and cleanse the river’s channel and bring the underground water table closer to the surface. And, fingers crossed, it will temporarily reconnect the Colorado River to the sea.

I never thought I would see such vitality return to the delta, much less play a small part in it.

Our Change the Course campaign—an alliance of the National Geographic Society, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and Participant Media—is working with on-the-ground conservation groups to support the delta’s restoration.

On the heels of the pulse flow orchestrated by the two governments, conservationists will deliver low-volume “base” flows to the emergent vegetation and restoration sites to promote their growth and spread.

In partnership with the Colorado River Delta Water Trust and other organizations, Change the Course will help acquire the water for those sustaining flows needed to bring the delta back to life.

A team from National Geographic and I were in the delta last year (check out stories, photos, and videos here), and we’ll be there again in late March and early April to witness and document this historic moment. So stay tuned.

By joining Change the Course, anyone can play a part in restoring flow to the Colorado River Basin, including the delta. For every pledge to shrink one’s personal water footprint, Change the Course returns 1,000 gallons of water to a depleted part of the basin.

What makes this possible are progressive companies that have joined Change the Course to balance their own water footprints by providing funding to support flow restoration projects.

As the drought has gripped California and much of the West in recent years, we’re reminded of how precious and essential water is to farmers, cities, businesses, and the environment that sustains us all.

An important message of Change the Course is that cooperation and smarter water management can restore rivers and benefit local economies at the same time.

To date, Change the Course has restored 1 billion gallons of water to five depleted portions of the Colorado River Basin—and we’re on track to restore even more than that in 2014. Our pledge community has grown to nearly 50,000 people, and more join us every day.

So in early April, as the waters of the Colorado River once again touch the sea, I will give thanks that working together we are changing the course of our water future—for good.

This article is written in association with Change the Course, a social action campaign from TakePart's parent company, Participant Media.