Changing Planet

The Colorado River Flows to the Sea

May 12, 2014 – the Colorado River Delta pulse flow is within sight of tidal water from the Upper Gulf of California. (Photograph by Francisco Zamora with support from Lighthawk)

This week, the Colorado River will be reunited with the sea – a destination it hasn’t seen in many years – thanks to the “pulse flow.” Scientists monitoring the flow expect the two waters to meet sometime tomorrow, during high tide, but it’s actually possible that the river reached the sea last week, as we learned from a handful of adventurers who rode their stand-up paddle boards to the tidal interface.

This confusion may surprise you, but those familiar with the delta know that the landscape can be difficult to navigate, making water hard to track.

The river’s location as it crosses over the last few miles of sand on its approach to the land’s edge is ambiguous. The delta down here is a sprawling plain of sandy channels that have shifted so many times they seem to go everywhere.  It’s not easy to follow the water flowing through this terrain, even with hundreds of eyes trained on it during this unprecedented event.

The uncertainty brings to mind the words of Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of the American conservation movement who visited the Colorado River Delta in 1922. He wrote, “ the river is nowhere and everywhere, for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf.”

When the United States and Mexico began releasing water into the Colorado’s delta on March 23, no one knew how far the flows would progress downstream. The engineered pulse flow was designed to deliver approximately 105,000 acre-feet of water – about 0.7% of the Colorado River’s average flow – for the purpose of restoring habitat along the river’s banks.  The best sites for re-creating nature were thought to be in the upper half of the delta, and the water’s journey in the lower half was not a primary focus of the design effort.

Yet some of the pressing questions over the past two months have been where is the water? and has it reached the sea?

As the pulse flow has advanced down the delta, there has been an unexpected surge of interest in its actual location. As Philip Fradkin described in A River No More, back in 1981, the failure of the Colorado to flow all the way to the Gulf fundamentally altered our perception of the river. It felt unnatural, it made us uneasy. The prospect of the river completing its journey and reconnecting with the ocean signals that, if only briefly, a fundamental disruption in the nature of things has been made whole again.

The value of the Colorado River Delta pulse flow is a story that will unfold over the next few years, as scientists collect data and tell us where the water went (how much into the underlying aquifer?  how much into the plants’ roots?), and how nature responded (how many new trees? what about the birds?).   They might be able to tell us whether the pulse flow’s meeting with the sea had unexpected benefits (did it have measurable impacts? were new wetlands created?  did fisheries increase?).

But there is more to this story:  there is value in seeing the river flow again, where it has been missing for so long. We saw that in the faces of the children who danced in the water in San Luis Rio Colorado, and we saw it in the faces of the farmers who travelled to the remote river channel behind their fields, staring in disbelief that the river was running again.  We heard it in the words of the officials who stood on Morelos Dam, when the gates were opened to allow the water to pass through, as they celebrated the river’s return to the delta.  And we see it in the global interest that has been piqued in whether the river will return to the sea.

The pulse flow is ephemeral by design –  a simulated spring flood that triggers new growth and then recedes – but now that we’ve witnessed the Colorado flowing in its delta, we know that it is possible to conjure the river back to life where the world thought it was dead.  It’s a resurrection that we won’t soon forget, and a vision of what could be in the future.

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.
  • JD

    This makes me so happy and hopeful for the future, thank you!!

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    This is a historical first for the two nations of Mexico and the USA to help restore a river ecosystem to a more normal version of itself even though it is just a small percentage of normal! I believe they will find that the benefits will far surpass their expectations. Mother Nature has a way of making things work the best it can with very little. It’s about time that we acknowledge the importance of the Colorado River and it’s delta. There are THOUSANDS of different living things that rely on that waterway that have gone without for WAY to long. We need to do this kind of thing in MANY more places.
    After all, We are mostly made of Water!!!

  • Harry Rigel

    Freeing the Colorado to reach the Sea is truly a sign of health. We as people of the Colorado River Watershed should rejoice, dance, and sing. Let us pray that this will be an annual event.

  • lisa shàpiro

    What a nice artical..Gods in everything .I say that with the purest of sincerity..I’ve been looking for Surge as well ,so I think I’ll write him .Hes worried and my Great friend .Jim I don’t know how to reach either.I think of him I’m quit a different lady now.Times have altered me ,But I’m free to love and own my truth my big truth I’m proud of .

  • gwl

    I was wondering why now when Ca. is in such dire need of water? Such is the nature of human kind is too mess up anything nature has done and then think they can fix it.

  • Jim K

    Isn’t every drop of fresh water that flows into the ocean wasted?

  • Larry Schmidt

    As long as I can remember the Colorado has never run to the sea. There is no sea on the west coast of the United States. Only an ocean. How can people trust you without your knowledge leading them astray?

  • ted

    they are fining people for watering their lawn, meanwhile, the contents of what used to be the largest freshwater reservoir in North America are being dumped into the ocean… fun…

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