Just Add Water? Restoring the Colorado River Delta
One of the many intriguing questions in Western water issues is the fate of the Colorado River Delta. The subject of extensive consultation at the local, state, national and international levels, the Delta is a beguiling place that is either at the cusp of rejuvenation or teetering toward oblivion, depending on who’s consulted. Left forgotten for decades as Colorado River water was sent to farms and growing cities, the Delta today shows glimmers of its legacy – a promise of restoration that has spurred people in the United States and Mexico to seek a renewed vision of its future.
“There’s been tremendous progress over the past 10 years, but we’ve also driven 10 years closer to the edge,” said Peter Culp, an attorney who has worked on Colorado River Delta issues for the past nine years.
The Colorado River Delta – located south of the U.S.-Mexico border – is today less than 1 percent of its original size. Diversions between the headwaters and Morelos Dam have tapped much of the Colorado River’s downstream flow and the river that once carried large steamboats has shrunk considerably; stopping entirely about 100 miles north from what was once its mouth. Morelos Dam is where Mexico receives most of its Colorado River allocation. The remaining Delta wetlands owe their existence to groundwater seepage, farm runoff and unintentional water releases from the United States into Mexico. Nonetheless, the Delta has shown a remarkable ability to endure, considering the degree to which it’s been altered.
“Most people had written off the Delta as beyond hope until the mid- to late 1980s when accidental flows demonstrated how resilient the system was,” said Professor Karl Flessa, head of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona. “It was a matter of ‘just add water’ and the habitats came back. For Western water, that’s a positive message.”
The Delta’s restoration is all the more important given its status as a sanctuary for endangered species. The Colorado River provides water to more than 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland, but its development has caused adverse consequences to the environment. The Delta is home to several threatened or endangered species, and many see its rehabilitation as key to meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
On the U.S. side of the border, much of the restoration activity falls within the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), a 50-year blueprint for ESA compliance in exchange for continued river operations. The MSCP calls for the creation of 8,100 acres of new habitat, including the planting of mesquite, cottonwood and willows and the creation of some marsh land between Hoover Dam and the border. “We clearly have a program to establish habitat creation and we are working on joint activities with environmental groups to look at opportunities in several different areas,” said Lorri Gray, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) Lower Colorado Region.
Even as the states and Reclamation work on the U.S. side of the border, Mexico and the United States are involved in multi-party talks designed to better factor in the environment in the water equation – an important development given the many ecological and economic values that could be realized with Delta restoration.
“The big challenge these days is allocating water for nature,” said Flessa, who has been researching the Delta since 1992. “Nature has no place at the bargaining table.”
Environmentalists are encouraged by discussions with Mexico regarding the possibilities of participating in reservoir storage activities similar to the Lower Basin’s Intentionally Created Surplus (ICS) program – which allows water users to undertake extraordinary conservation activities to reduce their annual use of Colorado River water and account for that conserved water in Lake Mead. Improved water management has sparked greater cooperative efforts, marked by the seven-state agreement designed to address shortage criteria. Talks have extended to the international stage as a means to increase recognition of the value of water on both sides of the border. But conflicts have arisen, such as the dispute over the lining of the All-American Canal now under construction. While aimed to stop water leakage in the United States, the matter flared tensions because of the concern of the adverse effect on Mexico’s natural habitat and farm economy.
“I do think things came to a head in the dispute over the All-American Canal,” said Jennifer Pitt, senior resource analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “People now seem to want to say, ‘let’s go forward and look at ways to help each other.’”
The binational consultation process underway aims to find opportunities for cooperative, comprehensive ventures that are mutually beneficial. This could be done through improved water use efficiency in Mexico, creating “new” water through ocean desalination, environmental restoration and modified system operations. It is believed there is an amount of water that could be saved by more efficient water use practices in Mexico that could go toward boosting the amount needed for environmental restoration. “The kinds of potential things that have been discussed include implementing water conservation projects in Mexico, and storing some of it in Lake Mead for later release down stream into the Colorado River and eventually below Morelos Dam as pulse flows,” said Bill Rinne, director of surface water resources with the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA).
Activists in Mexico have got the ball rolling through a “water trust” account designed to get flows into the river to facilitate riparian and habitat restoration. Purchasing water rights from farmers in the Mexicali Valley, the conservation group ProNatura Noroeste, the Sonoran Institute and EDF are building toward holding the rights to 50,000 acre-feet of water.
“The biggest thing we are considering is that as time goes on, and with the climate change predictions, water use and distribution in the basin will become tighter and tighter, and there will be no more ‘free’ water for the environment,” said Osvel Hinojosa, water and wetlands program director for ProNatura. “In that context, we need to get a legal allocation for all the water needs that we identify in the Colorado River Delta.”
Under terms of a 1944 treaty, the United States is obligated to provide 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually to Mexico, most of which is used to support agriculture. Since the treaty was signed, a series of “minutes,” or addendums, have been agreed to, including Minute 306 in 2000, which describes the means to address ecological issues in the Delta.
“Minute 306 documents the interest of both the U.S. and Mexico in the Delta and people often refer to it to set that context,” Pitt said. “The more recent binational discussions take discussions of Delta restoration far beyond Minute 306 into the issue of water for environmental resources.”
Environmentalists at one time pushed the idea of dedicating 1 percent of the river’s flow to the Delta, but the law governing water allocations “stood firmly in the way against this idea, because there was no way to transfer the conserved water to an environmental use,” said Pitt. “In a sense, the campaign has been renewed and revised in the efforts of many groups to secure environmental flows for the Delta via transfers of water use either in Mexico or the U.S.,” she said. “We hope there will soon be a way to secure that 1 percent … with Reclamation’s newly adopted policy to allow water banking in Lake Mead … and with the United States and Mexico negotiating new terms of holistic river management.”
This issue of Western Water examines the Colorado River Delta, its ecological significance and the lengths to which international, state and local efforts are targeted and achieving environmental restoration while recognizing the needs of the entire river’s many users.
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IBWC Commissioners Killed in Plane Crash
The news that our friends, the U.S. and Mexican International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) Commissioners, died in a small plane crash Sept. 15 about 13 miles over the Texas border in Mexico hit us hard at the Foundation. U.S. Commissioner Carlos Marin and Mexican Commissioner Arturo Herrera were assessing Rio Grande flood conditions in the border areas to coordinate joint response efforts with local officials and the Mexican government. Jake Brisbin, Jr., Executive Director of the Rio Grande Council of Governments, and the pilot also were killed.
The water world is a small community that includes stakeholders, government officials and we who cover them. We have been friends with both Commissioners for several years. Commissioner Herrera served on the Foundation’s Colorado River Project Advisory Committee. He was helpful in guiding our program as we analyzed Colorado River border issues. Both Commissioners Herrera and Marin spoke at many of our conferences and reviewed many of our publications. I know that the word “gentleman” is an old-fashioned word but to me it personifies the way both these men conducted themselves. It’s not surprising that they died while working together to coordinate efforts.
Last May I was with both Commissioners at a conference we conducted in San Diego on border infrastructure issues. I remember at the reception talking to Commissioner Marin and Commissioner Herrera about U.S. and Mexican domestic politics. We shared a couple of humorous stories about those politics. I remember Commissioner Marin saying how public service still was valuable and important in his life. This picture of both Commissioners was taken at that border infrastructure reception.
It’s always sad when we lose respected colleagues in the prime of their careers. These men were devoted to the goal of furthering cooperation between the United States and Mexico on a number of border issues. We truly will miss them. Let’s remind ourselves that because life is short we need to redouble our efforts to reach agreements and cooperate to solve issues. That would be a fitting tribute.
In the News
Results of Glen Canyon High-Flow Experiment ‘Mixed But Encouraging’
High-flow releases into the Grand Canyon have the ability to rebuild sandbars but whether they can be maintained is questionable because of the required river flows to meet summer energy needs, federal scientists said.
The preliminary findings come from a March 2008 flood release from Glen Canyon Dam into the Grand Canyon. Three federal agencies coordinated on the 60-hour flood release to see whether high flow releases are capable of rebuilding and maintaining sandbars used by wildlife and backcountry campers and to determine if such releases have the ability to create habitat and other advantages for native fish.
“Preliminary findings about how the experiment affected sand resources indicate that the results were mixed but generally encouraging,” said Ted Melis, deputy chief for the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Given the size and diversity of the Colorado River ecosystem found below Glen Canyon Dam, it is unsurprising that the overall response of sandbars to the high-flow release was complex and continues to change. It’s just impossible at this point to say whether it was a net positive or a net negative.”
Glen Canyon Dam, built in 1963, is located 15 miles above Grand Canyon National Park on the Arizona-Utah border. The dam stops most sand and finer sediment moving downstream, causing erosion and shrinkage of river sandbars in the park. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages both the park and the dam, has been experimenting with the use of strategically timed high-flow releases from the dam to improve downstream resources. Similar releases occurred in 1996 and 2004.
The March 5 release sent about 41,500 cubic feet per second of Colorado River water into the Grand Canyon. Since that time, USGS scientists have been gathering data, some of which reveals the impact of the regulated flow releases from Lake Powell.
“The resumption of normal dam operations during the summer has resulted in erosion of much of the sandbar created at river mile 45,” said Paul Grams, supervisory physical scientist. “Whether these high-flow events can result in a net increase in sandbars for more than a few months is one of the questions scientists are trying to answer with continued field measurements.”
Scientists also have been monitoring the response of sports fish and native fish populations, including the endangered humpback chub. According to USGS, the rainbow trout recreational fishery at Lees Ferry, Ariz. was “little affected” by the high flow release, nor were the chub, which live near the mouth of the Little Colorado River. However, continuing data collection could alter the understanding of fish populations respond to high flows. “It will be a few years before scientists can draw definite conclusions about how the 2008 high flows affected fishes because these animals grow fairly slowly,” said Matthew Andersen, supervisory biologist.
USGS anticipates that initial reports from the experiment will be provided to the public in late 2008 and early 2009 with a complete synthesis of the results tests to be provided in 2010