Wildlife & Wild Places

Landscapes Transform With the Arrival of the Colorado River

As the Colorado River flows through its delta for the first time in many years, parched landscapes are transformed overnight. Photo by Alexandra Verville/National Geographic
As the Colorado River flows through its delta for the first time in many years, parched landscapes are transformed overnight. Photo by Alexandra Verville/National Geographic

It’s a rare event to see a river literally form before your eyes.

But each day that we ventured out to find the leading edge of the Colorado River as it advanced through its delta during this historic “pulse flow,” we were treated to exactly that phenomenon: a dry, sandy channel that hasn’t seen water in 16 years suddenly became a rivulet, then a stream, then a glorious flowing river.

For me, some of the most powerful experiences have come from visiting the same location twice – before the river got there, and then again after its arrival.

One morning, we visited a dry, sun-baked, sand-filled channel that, more than anything else, evoked sorrow and loss.  My main memory of that first stop at Reach 3 was of the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California hydrology team’s pick-up truck getting stuck in the deep channel sands that the Colorado River had delivered there many years ago.

When we returned to the same spot a few days later, the river was running through it – and the landscape had been completely transformed.

We arrived at sunset, and the beauty was breathtaking.  Could this possibly be the same place where the truck had gotten trapped?  Why had we not brought a picnic dinner to enjoy by the river’s bank?

With the arrival of the Colorado River, the waters rise around a stately mesquite tree in the Laguna Grande restoration site in the Colorado Delta. Photo by Cheryl Zook/National Geographic
Photo by Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

Further downstream at the Laguna Grande restoration site, before the river’s arrival, we encountered a majestic mesquite atop a mound of earth with only a pool of shallow groundwater visible beneath it.

About 11 days later, the tree was surrounded by the river’s rising waters.

Photo by Cheryl Zook/National Geographic
Photo by Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

Also at Laguna Grande, we visited a vegetation research plot (right) established by Sonoran Institute’s Karen Schlatter.  Returning a few days later, we got the soul-soothing sight of young saplings receiving a deep, cool drink of the Colorado as it journeyed on toward the sea.

With the pulse flow now in its fourth week, the river is receding in upper reaches and rising downstream in others.

The Colorado River’s transformation of the landscape continues.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

If you’re not yet part of Change the Course, please join us.  Check out our website or text “River” to 77177.

Special thanks to Silk and Coca-Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course.  Additional funding is generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. She is also Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and serves as lead water expert for the Society's freshwater initiative. Sandra is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, the basis for a PBS documentary. Her essay "Troubled Waters" was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. Sandra is a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and has been named one of the "Scientific American 50" for her contributions to water policy.
  • Sergio Romo

    my life in the 70’s was wonderful in that colorado river that gave life to my community. Thanks to everyone for making the water back to my land, and take care of a lot.

  • Sergio Romo

    my life in the 70’s was wonderful in that colorado river that gave life to my community. Thanks to everyone for making the water back to my land, and take care of a lot.

  • Rod Wolcott

    stop wasting water on golf courses already there are plenty of them.

  • Rod Wolcott

    stop wasting water on golf courses already there are plenty of them.

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