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Why the Colorado River Doesn’t Meet the Sea

Fifty years ago Aldo Leopold hailed theColorado River delta as North America’s greatest oasis: Two millionacres of wetlands, cienegas, lagoons, tidal pools, jaguars andmesquite scrublands. Today it’s a wasteland.

The mighty Colorado River nolonger reaches the Sea of Cortez. Its entire annual flow has divertedand spit out into hay fields, water fountains in front of Vegashotels and thousands of golf courses. The Colorado has been suckedup to the last drop.

It’s once lush delta is nowa salt flat, as barren as Carthage after Scipio Africanus tookhis revenge on Hannibal’s homeland. This estuary used to be oneof the wonders of the world: a vast wetland, teeming with morethan 400 species of plants and animals. In fact, like the Nile,another desert river, nearly 80 percent of the riparian habitatfor the entire Colorado River was once clustered near the mouthof the river. The shallow lagoons in the delta region are hometo the Vacquita dolphin, at four feet in length the world’s smallest,which is now on the brink of extinction, with only 100 animalsknown to exist. Dozens of other endemic species are in the sameshape.

And not just animals are introuble. The delta was once the cultural mecca of the CopachaIndians, who made a good living fishing the estuary. But thesedays the fishing boats are beached and the Indians and Mexicanresidents are in grinding poverty, forced to work multiple jobsin distant tortilla factories, maquiladoras and wheat fields.

Perhaps, the only legal frameworkas mind-numbing as the Law of Sea is the Law of the Colorado River.This thicket of deals, trade-offs, set-asides, subsidies and politicallysanctioned thievery is nearly impenetrable to even the most seasonedand cyncial observer. But from the Mexican side of the border,the law is devastatingly simple: The US retains 95 percent ofthe Colorado River’s water and Mexico gets what’s left over. Mostyears this is about 1.5 million acre feet, roughly the same amountthat Sonoran desert farmers were using to irrigate their beanand onion fields in 1922.

Just before the Colorado crosses theUS/Mexico border 75 percent of its flow is diverted into the All-Americancanal. From there the water is flushed into wasteful irrigationsystems and it eventually trickles down into the Salton Sea, oncean important stop on the Pacific flyway for migratory birds nowa toxic soup of fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Instead of abird paradise, the Salton Sea has become a killing ground, theavian equivalent of cancer alley.

The water that eventually makesit to Mexico-much of it run-off from Arizona and California alfalfaand cotton fields– is nearly as salt-laden and toxic as thatin the Salton Sea. The situation is so extreme that the Bureauof Reclamation was compelled to build a $211 “reverse-osmosis”desalination plant at Yuma, Arizona. But that plant, built in1992, has only operated for a year.

It comes down to consumption.People in the American southwest have yet to come to turns withthe fact that they live in a desert. Per capita water use by theresidents of California, Nevada and Arizona ranges up to as muchas 200 gallons a day, more than 120 percent above the daily averagefor the rest of the nation. In Israel, for example, daily waterconsumption is less than 75 gallons.

But as stark as these numbersare the thirst of California agribusiness is downright vampirishby comparison. Nearly, 80 percent of the Colorado’s flow goesto corporate farming. Much of it to low-valued crops, such asalfalfa, cotton and even potatoes, that require lots of water.And because of their political clout they get the water cheap.Residents of Los Angeles, for example, pay as much as $600 peracre-foot for water from the Colorado. Big agribusiness is gettingthe same water for only $13 per acre foot.

For nearly 150 years, the attitudeof the water users of the American West has been guided by onedictate: “use it or lose it.” The notion of allowingany water to remain in the river, for fish, for birds, for rafters, or for Mexico, has long been anathema to the water lords.

“Scientists say we need at least one-percent to keep theColorado River delta on life-support,” says David Orr, ofthe Moab, Utah-based Glen Canyon Action Network. “That’swhy we started the One-percent for the Delta Campaign. We’re askingall of the water users in the Colorado basin to donate one-percentof their allocation to help restore the delta. One percent’s nota lot to ask, is it?”

The question is rhetorical,because Orr knows better than anyone that the history of westernwater politics is based on this paradigm: use it or lose it. That’swhy the Colorado and its tributaries are dammed and diverted fromWyoming to the Mexican border. For the water lords’ perspective,it’s better to waste the water than to leave it in the river.

That’s how we got Glen CanyonDam, one of the world’s greatest desecrations of nature. Thisconcrete plug flooded nearly 300 miles of the Colorado, destroyingone of the most glorious canyons on earth. But the impounded water-theequivilent of two years of the river’s entire flow–just sitsthere. Lake Powell is what’s known as a storage reservoir. It’sthere to merely keep the water from reaching the Sea of Cortezwhere it would be “lost.”

But here’s where we arrive atjust how perverse the system has become. Because Lake Powell sitsin the middle of a redrock desert, it loses a lot of water everyyear to evaporation. How much? More than a million acre feet.Moreover, another 350,000 acre feet are absorbed into the sandstonewalls of the canyon. All told that represents ten percent of theColorado’s yearly flow. To put it in perspective: the evaporationloss in a single day is equal to the amount of water used by 17,000homes in Phoenix over an entire year.

This grim fact has led to aradical but sensible idea: tear down Glen Canyon dam, restorethe canyon and let the water return to the delta, where it canreplenish that once teeming oasis. To promote this outlandishlyappropriate plan, Orr and his colleagues have taken to the roadin a water-tanker truck, stopping at dams along the course ofthe Colorado, taking a bucket of water from each stop and intopouring the holds of the tanker, ultimately delivering it to theColorado Delta. They’ve named their truck “Vaquita Rescue”,after the rare porpoise.

This is the face of the new environmentalmovement: ethnically diverse, smart, theatrical, militant, andarmed with a passion for social and ecological justice as wellas a sense of humor–true descendents of their mentors David Browerand Edward Abbey.

Riding along with the truckon several of its stops in the Four Corners region was ThomasMorris, the head of the Navajo Medicine Men’s Association. Morrissees the damming of the Colorado as an assault on the culturaland spiritual roots of native people throughout the Southwest.Many of the sites most sacred to Morris and the Navajo tribe arenow buried under hundreds of feet of water, destined for Phoenixsubdivisions and golf courses.

“Preserving our culturaltraditions is more important but harder to do as time goes by,”says Morris. “Indian people have worked hard to gain protectionfor our spiritual beliefs and practices, for the places wherewe make prayers, sing songs, and hold ceremonies. We have seensome progress, but there is still a long way to go. Imagine howit might feel if the great cathedrals were bulldozed for stripmalls. The Bible tells how Jesus threw the moneychangers out ofthe temple. We can relate to that when we see our sacred placesflooded and turned into tourist attractions.”

Taking down Glen Canyon dam and restoringflows to the mouth of the Colorado would be a big first step towardrighting old wrongs on both sides of
the border. CP