Photo Essay

  • Juan Butron, an environmentalist from nearby Ejido Luis Encinas Johnson, watches as water from the pulse release begins to churn through the opened gates of the Morelos Dam, on the border at Algodones, Baja California.
  • Local environmentalist and funny man Juan Butron pretends to drink water from the dry channel of the Colorado River as he goes looking for the leading edge of the slowly moving pulse release of water from the Morelos Dam, a few kilometers upstream from this spot. Within a few hours it would reach this spot.
  • Carlos de la Parra, a professor and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, in Tijuana, pauses to take a picture of the Morelos Dam about one half-hour before the gates were opened to begin the pulse release. De la Parra was instrumental in negotiations between parties on both sides of the border which made the pulse release a reality.
  • The public was allowed out onto the top of the Morelos Dam on the morning the pulse release started. The blonde woman with the long coat is Jacques Cousteau's granddaughter, Alexandra Cousteau.
  • Trees in a backyard, in San Luis Rio Colorado.
  • The leading edge of the pulse release of Colorado River creeps across the dry sand of the old river channel one week after the gates of the Morelos Dam were opened to simulate an historic flood.
  • Local man, Francisco Arvizu, on his horse the morning of the first day of the pulse release at the Morelos Dam, at Algodones, Baja California.
  • Local people come out to see the Colorado River reappear in a part of its historic channel for the first time since the 1990's, exactly one week after the beginning of the pulse release of water from the Morelos Dam.
  • Local people come out to see the Colorado River reappear in a part of its historic channel for the first time since the 1990's, exactly one week after the beginning of the pulse release of water from the Morelos Dam.
  • (L) Alberto Ramirez, 6, a local boy who has come with his family to enjoy the Colorado River the day after its flow slowly submerged a road across what had been a dry riverbed since the 1990's. (R) Broken irrigation pipe at the Miguel Aleman habitat restoration area in Baja California.
  • Crowds gather to witness the beginning of the pulse release next to the channel of the Colorado River. The channel, normally carrying only the dregs of Mexico's allotment of the Colorado, swelled rapidly within minutes of the opening of two gates on the Morelos Dam.
  • A local boy and his family enjoy the Colorado River the day after its flow slowly submerged a road across what had been a dry riverbed since the 1990's.
  • (L) Photographer's shadow by the leading edge of the pulse release of Colorado River as it creeps across the dry sand of the old river channel several hours after the gates of the Morelos Dam were opened to simulate an historic flood. (R) An irrigation canal full of Colorado River water near San Luis Rio Colorado, in Sonora.
  • Chairs await officials from both countries at a bi-national ceremony at the Morelos Dam, commemorating the pulse release of Colorado River water into its desiccated channel, in Mexico.
  • Professors Jan Barton (on the left) and Rebecca Lester (on the right) from Australia's Deakin University look for signs of returning life along the leading edge of the Colorado River, as it reclaims its old channel during the pulse flood from Morelos Dam.
  • A dog finds shelter under a palo verde tree from the blazing afternoon sun just one kilometer from the Colorado River channel which the pulse flow re-animated with water only the day before. The average annual rainfall in the area, at the edge of the Sonoran Desert, is slightly less than 2 inches.
  • Groundwater pumping east of San Luis Rio Colorado for agriculture. The diversion of the Colorado River upstream from San Luis has kept the aquifer from being properly recharged with water.
  • A local family loaded into a pickup truck heads toward the dry Colorado River channel to await the slow motion arrival of the water from the pulse release.
  • Jumping across the slowly moving front end of the Colorado River at dusk, as it returns to its old channel in the Delta for the first time in years.
  • Once the Colorado River had returned to San Luis Rio Colorado it became a popular destination every evening for local residents.
  • The people of San Luis Rio Colorado come out to see the return of the river that gave their city a part of its name. Watermelons for sale out of the back of a truck, driven to the spot because of the large crowds of people gathered to see the river.
  • Osvel Hinojosa Huerta, Director of the Water and Wetlands Program for Mexican environmental group Pronatura, in a canoe just below the Morelos Dam, on a marsh bird survey on the day after the beginning of the pulse release.
  • By the Morelos Dam, in Algodones, Baja California, at the end of the first day of the pulse release. Millions of years worth of pulverized dust, delivered by the Colorado River before the dams were built.
  • (L) Decades of dams have prevented the flood cycles on which native plants and trees have evolved to survive. Non-native tamarisk has out-competed them and absolutely taken over the Colorado River corridor, especially in the Delta. (R) University of Arizona grad student Hector Zamora take water samples from the Colorado River in a place in its historic channel where the water returned only the previous day. As part of the Minute 319 agreement between the seven Colorado River user states and Mexico, an unprecedented two month "pulse release" simulating a natural spring flood will continue until mid-May, with the intention of reviving a small part of the river's Mexican Delta.
  • Yuliana Dimas, project coordinator with Mexican environmental organization Pronatura Noreste, with brothers Orion and Luca, in section of the renewed Colorado River, near San Luis Rio Colorado, which was completely dry only the day before.
  • A pickup truck churns up the dust from millions of years of Colorado River silt, deposited in the Mexican Delta, before the giant dams were built that changed everything.
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Colorado River returns to parched border region

Updated
By John Trotter and Amy Pereira

For decades the Colorado River Delta in Mexico had been parched, starved of water by dams far upstream in the American Southwest. All that changed on March 23, when the gates of the Morelos Dam, on the Arizona-Mexico border, were lifted to allow a refreshing “pulse flow” back down the lower Colorado. 

As the water crept slowly across the sandy, dry riverbed, the people of San Luis Rio Colorado gathered to welcome back the river that had once given the dusty Mexican border city one half of its name. The Colorado River, as it is known in the United States, had been a rare visitor since Glen Canyon and the Hoover Dam began diverting water from Lake Powell in 1963.

Now, after 14 years of drought in the Colorado River basin, water was again thundering through the gates of the Morelos Dam, the result of an unprecedented agreement between Mexico and the United States to create a miniature simulation of the spring floods that once made the Colorado River Delta one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems.

To help revive the delta ecosystem, Pronatura and the Sonoran Institute, environmental groups on either side of the border, chose sites and worked with local people to remove tamarisk shrubs, an invasive species that has out-competed native flora along in the post-dam era. The restored sites were designed to serve as prime contributors for the spread of native seeds down the river corridor once the pulse flow began. One month after its arrival at San Luis Rio Colorado, the river was already subsiding, as water was shifted from the Morelos Dam at the border to a canal spillway further down the channel. Virtually all that’s left of the Colorado River when it reaches Mexico is diverted at the dam into canals used for agriculture and for domestic and industrial use.

Only time will tell if the pulse flow of 2014 will have its intended results and if future binational agreements include plans for such releases in the future, as environmental groups hope. But it was a sight to see for many thousands of young Mexicans, able to enjoy their river for the first time.

As the people of the Delta came out to celebrate the return of the Colorado, there was a sense that perhaps it is possible to fix some of the damage our great works have done to the environment, and a sense that people on both sides of the border could work together to make that happen. Will we decide that it is worth doing again?

John Trotter is a photographer based in New York. He has been working on a photographic project about the river and its dependent areas, entitled No Agua, No Vida, since 2001.

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