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Why the Colorado River Doesn’t Meet the Sea

Fifty years ago Aldo Leopold hailed the Colorado River delta as North America’s greatest oasis: Two million acres of wetlands, cienegas, lagoons, tidal pools, jaguars and mesquite scrublands. Today it’s a wasteland.

The mighty Colorado River no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez. Its entire annual flow has diverted and spit out into hay fields, water fountains in front of Vegas hotels and thousands of golf courses. The Colorado has been sucked up to the last drop.

It’s once lush delta is now a salt flat, as barren as Carthage after Scipio Africanus took his revenge on Hannibal’s homeland. This estuary used to be one of the wonders of the world: a vast wetland, teeming with more than 400 species of plants and animals. In fact, like the Nile, another desert river, nearly 80 percent of the riparian habitat for the entire Colorado River was once clustered near the mouth of the river. The shallow lagoons in the delta region are home to the Vacquita dolphin, at four feet in length the world’s smallest, which is now on the brink of extinction, with only 100 animals known to exist. Dozens of other endemic species are in the same shape.

And not just animals are in trouble. The delta was once the cultural mecca of the Copacha Indians, who made a good living fishing the estuary. But these days the fishing boats are beached and the Indians and Mexican residents are in grinding poverty, forced to work multiple jobs in distant tortilla factories, maquiladoras and wheat fields.

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

Just before the Colorado crosses the US/Mexico border 75 percent of its flow is diverted into the All-American canal. From there the water is flushed into wasteful irrigation systems and it eventually trickles down into the Salton Sea, once an important stop on the Pacific flyway for migratory birds now a toxic soup of fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Instead of a bird paradise, the Salton Sea has become a killing ground, the avian equivalent of cancer alley.

The water that eventually makes it to Mexico-much of it run-off from Arizona and California alfalfa and cotton fields– is nearly as salt-laden and toxic as that in the Salton Sea. The situation is so extreme that the Bureau of Reclamation was compelled to build a $211 “reverse-osmosis” desalination plant at Yuma, Arizona. But that plant, built in 1992, has only operated for a year.

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

But as stark as these numbers are the thirst of California agribusiness is downright vampirish by comparison. Nearly, 80 percent of the Colorado’s flow goes to corporate farming. Much of it to low-valued crops, such as alfalfa, 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 per acre-foot for water from the Colorado. Big agribusiness is getting the same water for only $13 per acre foot.

For nearly 150 years, the attitude of the water users of the American West has been guided by one dictate: “use it or lose it.” The notion of allowing any 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 the Colorado River delta on life-support,” says David Orr, of the Moab, Utah-based Glen Canyon Action Network. “That’s why we started the One-percent for the Delta Campaign. We’re asking all of the water users in the Colorado basin to donate one-percent of their allocation to help restore the delta. One percent’s not a lot to ask, is it?”

The question is rhetorical, because Orr knows better than anyone that the history of western water politics is based on this paradigm: use it or lose it. That’s why the Colorado and its tributaries are dammed and diverted from Wyoming 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 Canyon Dam, one of the world’s greatest desecrations of nature. This concrete plug flooded nearly 300 miles of the Colorado, destroying one of the most glorious canyons on earth. But the impounded water-the equivilent of two years of the river’s entire flow–just sits there. Lake Powell is what’s known as a storage reservoir. It’s there to merely keep the water from reaching the Sea of Cortez where it would be “lost.”

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

This grim fact has led to a radical but sensible idea: tear down Glen Canyon dam, restore the canyon and let the water return to the delta, where it can replenish that once teeming oasis. To promote this outlandishly appropriate plan, Orr and his colleagues have taken to the road in a water-tanker truck, stopping at dams along the course of the Colorado, taking a bucket of water from each stop and into pouring the holds of the tanker, ultimately delivering it to the Colorado Delta. They’ve named their truck “Vaquita Rescue”, after the rare porpoise.

This is the face of the new environmental movement: ethnically diverse, smart, theatrical, militant, and armed with a passion for social and ecological justice as well as a sense of humor–true descendents of their mentors David Brower and Edward Abbey.

Riding along with the truck on several of its stops in the Four Corners region was Thomas Morris, the head of the Navajo Medicine Men’s Association. Morris sees the damming of the Colorado as an assault on the cultural and spiritual roots of native people throughout the Southwest. Many of the sites most sacred to Morris and the Navajo tribe are now buried under hundreds of feet of water, destined for Phoenix subdivisions and golf courses.

“Preserving our cultural traditions is more important but harder to do as time goes by,” says Morris. “Indian people have worked hard to gain protection for our spiritual beliefs and practices, for the places where we make prayers, sing songs, and hold ceremonies. We have seen some progress, but there is still a long way to go. Imagine how it might feel if the great cathedrals were bulldozed for strip malls. The Bible tells how Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple. We can relate to that when we see our sacred places flooded and turned into tourist attractions.”

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

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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