Update From Colorado River Delta: A Community Gets its River Back

In the Mexican city of San Luis Rio Colorado, people are enjoying the river. (Photograpy by J Pitt, EDF)

For more than two weeks, the Colorado River has been flowing in its delta, through more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) of recently bone-dry river channel choked with desert scrub.  The flow is all too brief, lasting only eight weeks in all.  The United States and Mexico are demonstrating how a “pulse flow” of water can bring environmental benefits to this long-parched reach of the river.  The last 100 miles (160 kilometers) of the Colorado are a critical link in the Pacific Flyway, and new habitat can help the hundreds of species of birds that depend on it.

But for now, the principal species benefitting from the flow is us.  People love this river!

From the first day the water appeared, the community has come out in droves to see the river.  Some older folks are marveling in a sight they thought they would never see again.  Parents bring their children – there’s a whole generation being introduced to the river for the very first time.

Water in the Colorado River
There’s a whole generation being introduced to the river for the very first time. (Photograph by J Pitt, EDF)

On March 25th, 2014, I was fortunate to arrive at the bridge that spans the Colorado River (well, the dry channel anyway) in San Luis Rio Colorado, a Mexican city of about 150,000.  Just two days earlier, the gates had opened upstream at Morelos Dam, and the pulse flow waters had started traveling down the dry channel of the Colorado River Delta.

The sand was hot in the afternoon sun, and dozens of people were hanging out in the shade under the bridge, waiting for the river to appear.

Sand in Colorado River channel under San Luis Rio Colorado
Until March 25th, 2014, the river channel under the bridge in San Luis Rio Colorado was sand credit. (Photograph by J Pitt, EDF)

We found the water about a quarter mile up the channel, and spent the next couple of hours watching it flow.  There was a lot of sand to cross, and it moved slowly.  Then, a remarkable thing happened.  As the leading edge of the pulse flow moved in sight of the bridge, people stood up from their chairs planted in the shade of the bridge, and started walking towards it.  They were literally walking up to a brand new river.

Soon, there was a small crowd following the river’s front.  People knelt down to touch it with their hands, as if it were a mirage, and they needed not just to see it, but to feel it to believe it was real.  They rolled up their pants to wade in.  They stared.  They took pictures.  Kids did what they always seem to do when there’s water and sand: splash, dig, play.

I have dedicated my professional life to restoring the Colorado River in its delta, quantifying its water needs, synthesizing information about the expected environmental benefits, working with water managers in the United States and Mexico to find a way to make it possible without harming other water users.  I have written reports, attended countless meetings, given talks at an untold number of conferences, always working to persuade my audience that reviving the Colorado River in its delta was an achievable goal.

And yet, nothing had prepared me for this moment.

There’s a famous line in a song by Joni Mitchell:  “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”  The Colorado River had been missing from its delta for a long time, so long that many people could not recall it.  How could they know what it meant for their river to flow?

Now, for a few weeks, the Colorado River is flowing in its delta again.  The joy that the people of San Luis Rio Colorado have found here is unmistakable.  Maybe it is even enough to help make the river flow again.

A visit to the river on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

As we celebrate the return of the Colorado River, we can renew our efforts to ensure that this is more than a one-time event.  You have my word that I remain committed, and in the coming years I will be working to get the Colorado River to flow in its delta again.

Water is life. Rivers need water.  People love rivers.



Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund. She works with Colorado River water users throughout the Colorado River basin—including seven states in the United States and two in Mexico—to develop practical programs to restore river habitats and to dedicate water to environmental resources. She has worked as a park ranger and a Congressional aide, and has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University.