Colorado Delta Blues

The Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, Nevada, was the largest in the world when it was built in 1936. It set Lake Mead like a gem in a golden string of desert peaks along the 1,625 miles (2,300 kms) of the Colorado River, stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the United States to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Some 30 years later, Glen Canyon Dam formed Lake Powell. In the time and space between, other reservoirs came to stud the watery chain. The federal government linked them in a dazzling network to irrigate and power 20th Century western expansion. However, the jewels of growth in the United States carried a high cost for Mexico. The life they sustained north of the border was mirrored in death south of it.

Desperate, some 200,000 people in the 1,127 communities of the Colorado River’s Mexican watershed have mounted campaigns to save what little water trickles down to them, obtain more, and restore habitats. It has been an uphill battle but their efforts are starting to bear fruit. Residents have been conducting scientific monitoring for 25 years. They have nurtured wetlands, like the Cienega de Santa Clara, which is now the largest and most important marsh on the Lower Colorado and in the Sonoran Desert. They are planting endangered mesquite trees and experimenting with a new water permit scheme. They are fixing up old hunting camps to accommodate bird watchers. They have converted the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve into a center for repopulation of unique and threatened wildlife, while using the conservation principles of the Protected Natural Area (PNA) as a motor for sustainable development. Inside the reserve, in the village of El Golfo de Santa Clara, they founded a savings and loan association for women, oriented toward protecting commercial fishing. Now they want to secure a minimum flow of Colorado River water for agriculture and other activities. They are joining together to prevent outside investment interests from unleashing development that detracts from their natural surroundings.

Unfortunately, all these initiatives could flounder. For example, if agribusiness reactivates the Yuma Desalinization Plant in Arizona, it will deny the Cienega de Santa Clara essential discharges from the Wellton-Mohawk Canal. If the All American Canal in California is hard-surfaced to increase irrigation, the concrete will deprive Mexico of 65,000 acre feet (80 million cubic meters) of seepage water annually. This means the loss of 67% of the delta’s habitat and vegetation.

Today, these and other threats are the cause of binational tussling and lawsuits, leading to worries of an impending water war. Yet solutions are possible and opportunities for collaboration are at hand. International law requires crossborder consultation on Colorado River water rights decisions. A more proactive attitude on both sides of the boundary line would have results that go beyond the requirements of the 1944 Water Treaty. Inhabitants in the Colorado’s 3.1 million acre (1.3 million hectare) area of influence in Mexico have demonstrated this already.

If the river’s dams released even 0.002 acre feet (2 cubic meters) per second more, they would provide a permanent flow to the sea. That would be enough to give a new lease on life to the habitat and the economy. The International Boundary and Water Commission acknowledged the obligation to address the water shortage by establishing the Binational Technical Task Force in 2000. Even so, a bigger Mexican government commitment to achieving more U.S. participation in reaching conservation and restoration goals would strengthen the Delta population’s position.
Law of the River: Business First

In the United States, the 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 90% of the river water to Imperial and Coachella valley agriculture, as well as other lands in seven states north of the border. The 1944 Water Treaty between the United States and Mexico assigned the remaining 10% (1.5 million acre feet, or 1.85 million cubic meters, a year) to Mexican growers and other businesses in the Mexicali Valley. These and related legal instruments, now known as the Law of the River, assign nothing for fishing, recreation, or wildlife, except in extraordinary cases of surplus.
Mural in Cucapa El Mayor: The powerful Colorado is an omnipotent and ever present character. Photo: Dahl McLean

The water distribution system that kindled prosperity for people in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and California sacrificed countless indigenous sacred sites and ancestral lands. In the Colorado River Delta of Baja California state, it robbed the Cucapah Tribe of the inheritance that gave meaning to its name: “People of the River.”

The original Colorado River Delta dwellers and their descendants traditionally have made their living farming, fishing, and with the advent of tourism, as guides for hunters attracted by migratory birds that use the water course. But in the 1970s, contamination from upstream agrochemical discharges destroyed Mexicali Valley crops. The indigenous people united with other Mexican farmers to protest at the border against U.S. policy and polluters.

Then in 1982 and 1983, inhabitants felt a wave of hope when the river showed it obeys a law of its own: During the El Niño weather cycle, the delta refilled with rainwater. But seven years ago, in October 1999, drought clutched the entire Colorado Basin. Since then, the snowmelt from the top of the Rocky Mountains has determined the amount of water left over after irrigation. This has reduced the opportunities for people already impoverished for decades in Baja California and Sonora.
Underground Dreams Emerge from the Valley

The powerful Colorado is an omnipotent and ever-present character in the Western United States and Northwest Mexico. Yet even after years of civic groups raising awareness and calling for action, many people on both sides of the border ignore it. Traveling between Mexicali, San Felipe, San Luís Río Colorado, and Puerto Peñasco-the main urban points of the quadrangle that defines the delta-it’s hard to see the river water at all and even harder to imagine paddle wheel steamers navigating through here, as history books claim. The natural channels have all but disappeared. Visitors need interpreters to understand how the landscape holds anything more than extensive salt flats.

So it’s also easy to overlook the significance of the waterway to Northwest Mexico’s economic and ecological balance. “Many people don’t take it into account; they know nothing about this place,” says Guadalupe Fonseca Molina, a member of the Hardy and Colorado River Users Ecological Association (AEURHYC). But, he notes, “If there’s no water, there’s no food, nothing, not even tourists.”

What’s more, the delectable shellfish provided by the river and prepared on the grills of the most prestigious gastronomic centers of Chicago or Mexico City, have declined in direct proportion to the amount of Colorado water reaching the Gulf of California. Shrimp, corvine, and totoaba fish, which used to be plentiful in these waters, now run scarce. To reestablish the shrimp population, the estuaries near the mouth of the river would require an additional 0.057 acre feet (70 cubic meters) per minute during three months of the year. That is 35 times more than the river users claim they need for bringing back the corridor habitat.
Necessity, Mother of Invention

Residents hatched the Colorado River Delta Water Trust, a new mechanism with which the non-profit Pronatura Noroeste and other interested parties buy agricultural water rights from any users willing to sell, and convert them into perpetual ecological use rights. The regulations are currently being written for transforming the rights and applying them in private reserves, known as conservation easements.

Meanwhile Pronatura Noroeste, the Sonoran Institute, and other participants in AEURHYC are setting up a demonstration plot for the first exercise of these rights. They are clearing invasive salt cedar shrubs from 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares), planting mesquite saplings, analyzing and measuring underground water, monitoring birds, and studying soil characteristics. The property will be part of a master plan that is being designed to obtain a presidential decree for a Restoration Area with community management determined by watershed residents’ participation.
El Tapon dam illustrates the desperation of the delta dwellers. Photo: Dahl McLean

Reclaiming the delta is a painstaking, step-by-step process. You can pass by the community of Cucapa El Mayor on the edge of Federal Highway Five without noticing it. In the shadow of the sacred Eagle Mountain, known as Xuishpa in native language, the Cucapah have allied with AEURHYC. They recently took over monitoring fish in the river. After centuries of sustainable fishing the environmental crisis caused by intensive farming north of the border led to restrictions on their ancestral fishing rights. In March 2006, they filed a complaint over the limitations at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. At the same time, they are seeking support to increase their meager incomes through other activities. In October 2005, they held their first arts and crafts exhibit, attracting visitors through the Sonoran Institute’s ecotourism project Ruta de Sonora. The following month they held their first traditional dance festival.

Cucapah elder Onésimo González Sainz is optimistic over the Mexicali mayor’s promise to promote tourism in the community. González Sainz is a traditional leader, born at the same time as the Hoover Dam. Although his vocabulary does not include the words “ecological imperialism,” he well knows the meaning of the term that scholars use to characterize the delta’s brand of degradation. “I would like to see so many things-all the young people with work on their own land and the water back again-but the sacred river is gone. It’s very sad,” he muses. He consoles himself, saying, “But we’re very proud of being Indians, to go through everything we have put up with and still be here.”

The labor that perhaps best illustrates the desperation of the delta dwellers is the construction of El Tapon dam. Built by community members, the dam raised the Hardy River level and created 2,471 acres (1,000 hectares) of wetland. To achieve that, the river users filled bags of sand, carried them by hand, and stacked them one by one in a four-year process without the help of machinery until the very end.

Among the volunteers was Fonseca Molina, a tourist guide since age 12, when his father posted him at the Ramona hunting camp while herding goats on Eagle Mountain. He recalls the great flooding of the 1980s, and ponders, “What I would like most is a lot of water to plant trees, willows and cottonwoods.” The water users’ association, formed in 1999, has grown to 29 members, despite challenges like El Tapon. To its credit is the planting of 2,000 trees on 20 acres (eight hectares), with a 90% survival rate. The association is also renovating the Ramona, Flores, Muñoz, and Mosqueda hunting camps, planting native mesquite, ironwood, willow, and cottonwood. The camps serve as bases for checking salinity, temperature, clarity, and other river health indicators of the Hardy, a branch of the Colorado.
Field station: The biosphere reserve supports productive efforts. Photo: Dahl McLean

The federal administrators who run the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve provide materials and consultation for these efforts outside the Protected Natural Area (PNA), because they contribute to the cause of biodiversity conservation inside it. Some 15% of the species in the PNA are endemic, or unique in the world. A 1993 federal decree created the reserve. It covers 2.31 million acres (934,756 hectares) including part of the gulf waters. Its area of influence is even greater due to partnerships in Arizona and California, with the Imperial, Kofa, and Cabeza Prieta national wildlife refuges; Barry M. Goldwater Range; and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; as well as in Sonora state’s Gran Desierto del Altar Biosphere Reserve. The delta reserve belongs to the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. It shelters coveted ocean species, such as nearly extinct totoaba and vaquita, which is the world’s smallest marine mammal.
Productive Efforts Spell Success for Reserve

Inside the reserve, when night falls on the shoreline village of El Golfo de Santa Clara, fishermen return from the sea. They ground their motorboats and hoist them onto trailers to haul them home with noisy pickups battered by the salt and sand of daily work. The darkness conceals the hope of a development alternative, which local women initiated to protect the vaquita.

It’s called the Lazos del Mar Community Finance Organism. From 2002 to 2005, its members saved and lent more than 2 million pesos (US $200,000). They had no bad debts in the entire first three years of operation. The loans were destined to support economic activities that alleviate fishing pressure on the vaquita and commercial catch. The main threat to the vaquita and totoaba is the shortage of clean, fresh water inflow to the gulf due to dams and agriculture on the Colorado River. Demands on fisheries-and consequently the ecosystem-are reduced by the diversified income sources of a grocery store, a video rental business, and a refreshment stand made possible by Lazos del Mar. The members envision going beyond these mom-and-pop shops in their hometown to take advantage of nearby border markets with production of handcrafts. Given a little training, they expect to incorporate ecotourism and environmental education enterprises into their portfolio.
Wellton-Mohawk Canal discharges are essential for the Ciénega de Santa Clara. Photo: TALLI NAUMAN

In charge of the reserve, the National Protected Areas Commission (CONANP) emphasizes safeguarding delta wetlands for their importance as wildlife habitat, as well as their ability to retain and purify water, a resource that was declared a national security priority in Mexico in 2000. The commission calls attention to the wetlands’ environmental services: They provide stable hydrological conditions, flood control, storm and erosion protection, mitigation of potentially catastrophic climate change impacts, aquifer recharge, nutrient retention, a genetic diversity repository, and carbon sinks. They also serve as nurseries for species valuable to commercial fishing, while offering multiple possibilities for the recreation and tourist industries.

The Cienega de Santa Clara and a half dozen other marshes, including Andrade Mesa, enjoy the status of priority conservation sites, at the recommendation of scientists from the United States and Mexico who have been working to support the delta for 10 years. Among universities, research institutes, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) backing them are: the Sonoran Institute, Environmental Defense, Defenders of Wildlife, Pronatura, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, Pro Esteros, Pro Peninsula, Living Rivers, and North American Wetlands Council. With philanthropic assistance, these and other advocates foster grassroots initiatives, such as that of Juan Butron, who safeguards the Cienega de Santa Clara.

Butron is an empirical ecologist from the impoverished ejido Luis Encinas Johnson that encompasses the Cienega de Santa Clara. He earned the 2005 Michael S. Currier environmental service award for vision, originality, and leadership from the New Mexico Community Foundation and the Thaw Charitable Trust. The prizewinner has adopted the swamp “like a member of my family,” he says. He involves the youth from the ejido of 150 people in studies and promotion of the marsh as an ecotourism destination adjacent to the biosphere reserve.

Visitors who travel south across the border to San Felipe and Puerto Peñasco, receive a welcome of desolate miles of roadsides littered with trash that the Baja California and Sonora state governments neglect. But if the travelers reach Butron’s niche of the delta, they find it clean as a whistle, because he is determined to stop garbage dumping in the mudflats and native scrublands. Considered crazy by some, he battles for nature every day, literally putting out fires that even his own relatives start. He rebels against artificial changes to the landscape, such as pouring gravel for an interpretive trail or building guesthouses with bricks instead of natural fibers locally available. He has become a model for his community by imparting love and respect for conservation and purity. He shows neighbors how to guide visiting bird watchers to observe highly prized Yuma clapper rails, American white pelicans, gracos, ospreys, egrets, and flycatchers that populate the bog. Only now, in middle age, is he taking up the schooling he was forced to abandon at the primary level. But he insists that formal education is not necessary to “know the difference between wrong and right.”

Life in Danger

A decision made in the United States could cause the Cienega de Santa Clara to disappear. In June 2005, the Arizona Central Water Conservation District opted to reactivate the Yuma Desalinization Plant with guarantees to supply sufficient water to the marshland, but the water-sharing commitment faces heavy opposition. Andrade Mesa wetlands could be lost the same way. The non-profit Mexicali Economic Development Council has sued in U.S. federal court over the lining of the All American Canal, delaying the slated June 2006 project start date. It is a known fact that the United States can lower the delta water level at will.

Francisco Zamora, researcher in the multi sector binational Colorado River and Delta Project says no time is more crucial than the present for the ecoregion. “Communities want to see action. The government is getting involved because it sees that users are doing things themselves,” he says. People in different levels of government now recognize that destruction of the delta impacts the whole Upper Gulf, its people and their environment, as well as far off consumers. What’s more, he adds, the lessons of the delta have created models of collaboration that can be applied throughout the gulf region. The knowledge gained from experience in the Colorado Basin can save other river sheds before their situations worsen. “When conservation goes hand in hand with economic development, that’s one of the best ways to go,” Zamora says.

TALLI NAUMAN is co-founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, which is responsible for this series of investigative feature reports on sustainable development in the Gulf of California Region, made possible thanks to people throughout the region. It was sponsored by the Fondo Educación Ambiental, International Center for Journalists, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.