Mexico is trying to restore the flow of the Colorado River


When the Colorado River reaches the US-Mexico border, it flows into the Morelos Dam. Almost all of the remaining water is diverted to the Grand Canal and flows to the agricultural lands and cities of Baja California.

South of the dam, the last river flows into the desert.

The river’s sandy channel meanders through fields of wheat, hay, cotton and vegetables and bypasses the town of San Luis Rio Colorado, which has had little or no water flowing under the bridge for years.

Mexico is entitled to 1.5 million acre feet of water per year under a 1944 treaty. But in recent agreements with the United States, Mexico also agreed to participate in cuts in the event of a deficit.

Last year, Mexico’s share decreased by 5%. This year, it will lose 7 percent of its water.

The Colorado River flows into the Morelos Dam on the US-Mexico border, where it is diverted into a large canal for agricultural and urban use.

(Brian van der Bruegh/Los Angeles Times)

Recently, a group of farmers gathered at the office of the National Water Commission in Mexico to hear what the cuts mean and discuss ways to save with government officials and experts. The agency’s regional director, Miguel Angel Rodriguez Todd, addressed the group.

“The Colorado River Basin is facing an extreme drought that is affecting both the United States and Mexico,” Rodriguez said, explaining the reduced supplies to farmers.

According to him, climate change will narrow the river’s source, which will require adaptation efforts.

“We must strive to improve water management,” Rodriguez said. “We need to move toward improvement and efficiency.”

The workshop covered topics such as measuring flow rates and changing crops to conserve water.

“We have to start acting,” said Carlos de la Parra, who heads the non-profit environmental group Restauremos El Colorado. He told farmers that if the shortage worsened further, there could be more cuts and that they would have to adapt by becoming more efficient.

“We have the same problem as you, only our culture is a culture of ecosystems,” De la Parra said.

His group is one of six organizations in a coalition called Raise the River that aims to restore streams in the Colorado River Delta.

Dead brush emerges from the dry salt marsh

Much of the Colorado River Delta has been reduced to dry riverbeds with only small remnants of its surviving wetlands.

(Luis Cinco/Los Angeles Times)

More than a century ago, the delta covered 1.9 million acres of wetlands and forests. Conservationist Aldo Leopold, who crossed the delta in a canoe in 1922, described it as a “hundred green lagoon” and said he swam in water “of a deep emerald hue.” He described it as an oasis full of fish, birds, beavers, deer and jaguars.

In the years following his visit, the river was dammed and water was sent through canals to farms and cities.

Over the decades, so much water has been diverted that the river rarely meets the sea. Much of the delta has been reduced to dry riverbeds, with only small remnants of its surviving wetlands remaining.

Restauremos El Colorado manages one of three habitat restoration areas in the deforested delta, where native trees planted six years ago cover wetlands in shade.
Last spring, water from the channel was released and poured into the wetland, restoring the river’s flow to what used to be miles of desert sand. The water was released for the second year in a row under an agreement between the Mexican and US governments and with the support of environmental groups.

After the water was pulsated, De la Parra and his colleagues saw plants blooming along the riverbed. Biologists counted about 120 species of birds. Motion-activated wildlife cameras capture beavers swimming and gnawing on tree trunks.

De la Parra and others say efforts in the delta have been remarkably successful, showing that even small amounts of water can restore ecosystems that were largely destroyed decades ago. De la Parra said he believes it is vital that the restoration efforts continue. But while conservation groups have water rights to maintain certain wetlands, the river’s decline poses challenges to their efforts.

Fishermen in boats near the mudflats

At the mouth of the Colorado River delta, fishermen pull their boats out of the mudflats to wait for the tide to rise and head for the Sea of ​​Cortez.

(Luis Cinco/Los Angeles Times)

The river crisis is also a critical moment for farms and cities to adapt, De la Parra said.

“I hope we understand that the crisis is not something to be wasted,” he said. “We have to use it to push for a different model.”

For cities, de la Parra said, that means initiatives like recycling wastewater, capturing rainwater and investing in a new desalination plant in Baja California.

There is an opportunity for farmers to save water by installing efficient irrigation systems and switching from thirsty crops like alfalfa to crops that use less water, he says.

“This is the water revolution that needs to happen,” De la Parra said.

Water flows from the faucet into the bucket as a person follows

El Indiviso, a fishing village in Mexico’s Colorado River Delta, gets its drinking water from groundwater. The river dries up in the delta north of the village.

(Luis Cinco/Los Angeles Times)

He said he believes people can improve their livelihoods by using less and “embracing this water revolution”. It is also optimistic that future generations will have a river delta with a functioning ecosystem.

The water released in June caused the river to flow about 40 miles into the lower delta. Eventually the water reached the Gulf of California at high tide.

The flowing river attracted attention. At the roadside, where the river channel has turned into a wide pond, families come to rest on weekends, and children start walking in the water.

Angela Melendez, who works with the Sonoran Institute’s conservation group, said she was excited and moved to see the river come back.

He said it hurts when “our environment is degraded, harmed and exploited.” It is said that if the river does not reach the sea, “one of your roots does not reach your heart”.

Often the mouth is separated from the river. The shores near the mouth of the river have long been carved by rising and falling waves that have left branching tree-like patterns imprinted on the sand.

The Kukapa indigenous people living in the delta have traditionally depended on fishing. The Cucapa still push wooden boats into the estuary to catch corvina. But there are fewer fish than before.

Hilda Hurtado, a 68-year-old tribal member and president of a fishing cooperative in Cucapa, said Valenzuela always had water in the river when she was growing up. There were willows on the bank, and the mother twisted the thread into a loop with a spinning top.

“There were a lot of fish because the river was always bringing water,” Hurtado said. “Not anymore. Now there is nothing.

According to him, the fresh water flowing into the salt water creates a habitat for fish to multiply in the estuary. He says that the fish are suffering from this running water.

“There has to be water in the Colorado River delta,” Hurtado said, sitting outside his home in El Indiviso. “For the Kukapa people, fishing is how we live, how we feed ourselves, but it’s also part of our culture. The Colorado River is part of our culture.

He fears that the time will come when the remaining fish will disappear because there is no running water.

“We want to see a river with life,” he said. “We need the water from the Colorado River for the survival of the fish, but also for the survival of the people of Cucapa.”

He said that if only a little water could be diverted so that the river could become a river again and flow to its end, so much could be saved.

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Times Podcast: Colorado River in Crisis

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