Where the Colorado Runs Dry
By JONATHAN WATERMAN
CARBONDALE, Colo.--MOST visitors to the Hoover
Dam and the Grand Canyon probably donít realize
that the mighty Colorado River, Americaís most
legendary white-water river, rarely reaches the sea.
Until 1998 the Colorado regularly flowed south along the
Arizona-California border into a Mexican delta, irrigating
farmlands and enriching a wealth of wildlife and flora before
emptying into the Gulf of California.
But decades of population growth, climate change and damming in
the American Southwest have now desiccated the river in its lowest
reaches, turning a once-lush Mexican delta into a desert. The
riverís demise began with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a deal
by seven western states to divide up its water. Eventually, Mexico
was allotted just 10 percent of the flow.
Officials from Mexico and the United States are now talking about
ways to increase the flow into the delta. With luck, someday it
may reach the sea again.
It is paradoxical that the Colorado stopped running consistently
through the delta at the end of the 20th century, which ó
according to tree-ring records ó was one of the basinís wettest
centuries in 1,200 years. Now dozens of animal species are
endangered; the culture of the native Cocopah (the People of the
River) has been devastated; the fishing industry, once sustained
by shrimp and other creatures that depend on a mixture of seawater
and freshwater, has withered. In place of delta tourism, the
economy of the upper Gulf of California hinges on drug smuggling
operations that run opposite to the dying river.
In 2008 I tried to float the length of the 1,450-mile river to the
sea but had to walk the last week of the trip. Pools stagnated in
the cracked riverbed. Like the 30 million other Americans who
depend on the river, I worry about drinking water ó but I also
worry about the sorry inheritance we are leaving future generations.
Demand for water isnít the only problem. Climate change also
threatens to reduce runoff by 10 to 30 percent by 2050, depending
on how much the planet warms, according to a 2009 paper in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although the river delta canít yet be pronounced dead, its pulse
is feeble and its once-vital estuaries and riverside forests are
But a delicate beauty hangs on. Coyotes still bawl across the
briny tang where a mirage-laden sky appears to pull the distant
Sierra el Mayor down to sea level. The organic matter of this
delta once sprawled 3,000 square miles to join Mexico and the
United States in a miraculous mixture of fertility and desert;
these sands have been washed out of the Rockies, carved from the
Grand Canyon and tumbled through more than three million acres of
If the final reaches of this six-million-year-old delta were in
the United States, they would have been declared a national park,
with a protected free-flowing river. But because the river
terminates in a foreign country, beyond the reach of the
Endangered Species Act and most touristsí cameras, it is suffering
a slow death.
Yet even in its last gasp of fecundity, the delta is larger than
the human imagination. Spring tides sweep, like heartbeats, from
the upper Gulf of California and the Colorado River Delta
Biosphere Reserve two dozen miles up the salt-crusted and
rock-hard riverbed. From Arizona a canal runs farm wastewater
about 50 miles south into the Mexican delta, creating an
accidental, but now critical, bird sanctuary. Groundwater infuses
verdant marshlands; newly planted trees line restored riverbanks;
and an earthquake last spring destroyed farm irrigation canals,
allowing the river to flow seaward again, but all too briefly.
The problems have been neglected amid attention on illegal
immigration, the drug war and the debated border fence. But by the
time this winterís fogs burn off the delta, American and Mexican
members of the International Boundary and Water Commission aim to
complete negotiations on conserving water, responding to climate
change and dedicating more water to the delta and its riverside
forests instead of only to farms and distant cities.
These talks have gone on for years, but before Mexicoís election
this summer, there is a rare ecological opportunity, if only
political forces seize it. I hope the commissioners can transcend
their differences and recall the wisdom of ancient empires, when
civilizations flourished only as long as the Nile and the
Euphrates and the Yangtze continued to flow. By strengthening the
treaty between the United States and Mexico that governs the
Colorado River, we have the opportunity to revive the river and
show the world, as it is suggested in Ecclesiastes, that all
rivers shall run to the sea.
Jonathan Waterman is the author of ďRunning Dry: A Journey From
Source to Sea Down the Colorado River.Ē