Colorado River returns to parched border region
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.