October 3, 2013

Renegotiating the Colorado River: It's Return to the Sea

Perhaps all it took was a conversation.. 58 years avoided... but it looks like the Colorado River, the long standing symbol of the tragedy of the Cadillac Desert of the American West, might very soon be rejoining it's old amigo, The Sea Of Cortez, or the Gulf of California if you like, since semantics no longer are going to stand in the way of this symbolic waterways attempts to travel to it's destiny. It might be a momentary meeting of any consequence, to be measured in days for anything above a small base flow, a bit like when the big wigs sat down together to ink what is letting it happen, but it promises bigger things. To quote vice president Joe Biden's famous gaffe, when this happens, perhaps even next spring, it's gonna be a "Big Fu*&ing deal!" for anyone who loves the West, The Colorado, or Sonora, Baja and El Mar De Cortez.
Before I go into the minutiae of how a negotiation of something called Minute 319 to the Treaty of February 3rd, 1944 might be in fact a big f@#ing deal (trying to imagine Secretary Ken Salazar and the Mexican Border and Water Commission Head Roberto Salmon making the same lovable flub, since that's who it would be in this case), how's about a little color and background, before your restless mouse wanders to that Viagra commercial flashing on the left of the screen...

Let me start with the controversial yet satisfying notion of a pristine yardstick from which to measure this story, a 'world before man' notion of nature left to it's own devices, since in this particular case, before man arrived in these areas maybe 13,000 or less years ago, but more significantly, before Gringos with bulldozers and cement showed up about 90 years ago, this river was different indeed. I just read that the Delta used to receive 4 to 6 million acre feet per year of water from the flowing Colorado. A little quick math shows me that that's a constant flow, if we split the middle and call it 5 Million Acre Feet, that's almost 7000 cubic feet per second, all year (there are 31 and a half million seconds in a year I just figured out.. how bout that!), the standard of river run measurement in the US.
7000 CFS is not a huge river, but when you think about the difference between spring and fall flows in a desert like the west, you realize it can be. What makes this story a bit more complex is that this delta doesn't always drain to the sea.. if you have even driven around south-easternmost California, you might have bumped into the Salton Sea.. in the river's normal meanderings, instead of heading for the Sea of Cortez, it sometimes wanders north from below Yuma, above which valleys and canyons kind of control it's spread, to the below sea level areas to the north west. In essence, the delta is a huge triangular area of which only one corner is what we accept as it's delta today, the rest is a big Sonoran and Mojave Desert Sandbox, including the Salton Sea, which despite popular legend, wasn't exclusively created by the rupture of one of these aqueducts 100 years ago, although that helped:

However, by any measure, despite the huge size of the delta proper, the vegetated area of the hydrated portions of the delta would have been significantly smaller, down the current river channel and it's oxbows and offshoots, down to where it branches out to the many tendrils and braids into the sea, but not nearly nonexistent as we have today..
Environmental watchers have known for years that the Colorado River, the mighty aorta of the American West, doesn't reach the sea, or any of it's possible destinations in that vast area, inland seas included. It is kind of the sad burden of the self appointed eco-cognoscenti to know this, to be morose standing atop the mighty viewpoints of the South Rim, or the Hoover or Glen Canyon Dam's, to have a little sympathy for Hayduke and the Monkey Wrench Gang  for what you knew, and the tourists didn't, that the artist of such a mighty work as the American Canyon territory or the gorges of Glenwood Springs, this wild river whose legends from Indian Lore to John Wesley Powell read as savage and exotic as any story from any land, was now like a castrated bull or a fixed dog, unable to fulfill his own push to satisfaction in his massive sandy delta... not even contemplating such an act, so hobbled by the pressures of so many obligations.. a harried unic fulfilling the demands of the empire, it's masters King Civic Water and Queen Irrigation, and their child the Great Dams (Hoover and Glen Canyon most notably), only vaguely aware of the memories of his own physical demands...
For a while you had to almost be a local or the Quixotic kayaker Chris McCandless to know that the river's water was completely siphoned off, maybe 20-30 river miles before it reached it's most recent delta on the north end of The Mar De Cortez. It's delta, once hundreds of square miles of vitality, now almost completely converted to desert, because it was only whispered in certain environmental and educational circles, and was incidental, or urban legend to the rest. It was like a sad family secret for the locals of sorts. Along came McCandless, his path followed by John Krakauer and Sean Penn, and urban legend was confirmed to the masses, as you cried into your Imperial Valley grown iceberg Lettuce salad in the basement theater of your Phoenix McMansion about guilty indulgence to Eddie Vedder's emotional tones (Oh my God, he starved to death. Never leave civilization!),  as the sprinklers ran on the lawn upstairs, and you played Wilco to fall asleep that night for the next day's run at suburban life.. yup dipshit, it's your fault...
Anyhow, where did all the water go, what almost killed the Colorado River Delta, near the city of Mexicali, and the Phoenix party town of Puerto Penasco, AKA Rocky Point, just downriver from Yuma, AZ, where it runs dry near the little border town of Gadsden, famous for the purchase agreed to there? Well, an unquenchable thirst for water. Water for cities, for teeth brushing and toilet flushing as far away as the California coast and Denver on the other side of the Continental Divide, both well out of the Colorado's watershed (Las Vegas gets a bad rap for draining the Colorado, when in fact, they have been the most proactive of any of the Municipalities that do in terms of conservation despite a few famous indulgences like Lake Bellagio.. if you want bad guys, look to the Mullhollands of the World, and the Scottsdales.. , and water for Irrigation to grow crops in what used to be desert... You can grow Cotton in the desert if you have enough water, and if you do, it grows well, let alone less water demanding crops like certain types of produce, but they don't stick to sugar beets; they got the water, and they use it.
The 'resource' is measured in Acre Feet in the US (one acre stacked one foot high with water, 43,460 cubic feet.. the flow of the river for one second on a high day down from Moab), and Meter Hectares in Mexico, 353 146.667 cubic feet, about 7 seconds on that same day, and both are exchanged in separate markets in each country, after a treaty was negotiated in 1944 divvying up the take between the two nations... what's left for the Delta, to flow free and sustain it.... nothing.. that's right, nothing... it's all spoken for unless you have a huge flood, rarer and rarer in the increasingly drought ridden west, and the last time the River flowed to the Sea was in 1998 after what I think was a heavy Rocky snow load that led to a spate of flooding.. that's right.. 15 years ago. 
Where does it all go.. well, by ditch to the the major cities of Phoenix, Los Angeles, the Southland, conceivably San Francisco, 
and a lot of cities in between, including Mexicali and Maybe even Tijuana, and to Irrigation Projects, mostly the Imperial Valley, but also farm fields from the Front Range and Utah to the San Juaquin. 
But I said 'almost' dead a bit ago, twice actually. Where does the almost come in? Two reasons.. one impressive adaptation, the other kind of a dirty divine accident.. the adaptive is that Desert Plants, even riparian desert plants, tend to be remarkably resilient, and even after years laying dormant, rebound with just a bit of water, as they did after the last flood in 1998, which people said was beautiful, all was green and lovely, if just for a little while.. well, in the little glimmer of hope in this story I have come to love, that little accident that shows me the Coyote God of the desert knew what was up and made provisions all along,.. the fauna and flora of the Delta, which is dry as a bone, just a big beach that goes for miles without much vegetation in all directions... visible from space and even nearby Mt. San Pedro Martir, (which your author conned his way to the top of once, gated for a university observatory, tallest mountain in Baja at 11,000 ft), as a big sandbox, has been saved by the most fortunate of accidents... it somehow all migrated to the end of a drainage ditch that handles the polluted runoff from Mexican and American Farms... no joke.. a sewer might have accidentally saved some species and subspecies endemic to this one delta... essentially stopping extinction with a little accidental inland estuary, due to the higher than normal salt content of this water, and preserving the H in this story of Hope, while recent developments work to add the remaining three letters back to this parched game of Hangman... The spot is called the Cienega de Santa Clara..
this anomalous green blip, flowing to nowhere, but like a seed bank or an ark for the now long dry delta..

to make it odder, to point out the almost divine perfection of the situation, since the most recent delta was in fact the saline waters of the Sea of Cortez, most of the wildlife that needed preserving, since normal riparian species do have a foothold from Yuma up, were used to high salinity's, so the humor of the situation is that a previous but not nearly as critical renegotiation of the Treaty, Minute 2!! in the 70's, called for a Desalination plant in Yuma to clean out the salt before it got shipped over the border, kind of a good neighbor deal, small in scope compared to what was necessary, but still noble, but the plant was never properly funded or turned on for whatever reason, even though it costs 6 Million a year to keep it in it's present state I read, but that accidental delay might have been good for the species Balance in the Cienega.. if the water was too fresh, some species might not have survived, which is what the study that gave us the above graphic was about.
If you read some of the dramatic accounts of the attempts to resurrect the delta, which seemed to take on some momentum in the '90s with the involvement of something called The Sonoran Institute, and a more earnest Mexican environmental enforcement and intent with the election of Vincinte Fox and the PAN, this little Cienega, as few as 500 acres in size before it was recognized for what it was, the last surviving tinder in a necessary fire, and people describe it as appearing more or less as the whole hydrated area of the delta once felt... green and bio-diverse... loaded with grasses and cottonwoods... and it now measures thousands of acres due to restoration attempts to expand it and improve as much survivability as possible.
But the Cienega isn't in the current river channel as you can see.. it's a ways to the east, so here is the dilemma.. how do you get water flowing back into the river channel itself, all the way to where it wants to be, the Sea of Cortez or anywhere else it wants to jump to once it has the hydrodynamics to do so? Well lemme describe what we have now, which I learned about at considerable risk to my life and limb if I do say so myself... I didn't want to take McCandless's word for it, kid's a bit dramatic for me. I had to see it for myself, so I found myself in Yuma not too long ago, after waiting for the 3:10, and stumbled onto a modern world that would have more than intrigued the likes of Elmore Leonard.
You see, the river runs dry along the 20 miles of The US of America/US of Mexico Border that is formed by the Colorado river, or was, like I am saying... now half of that border is formed by what is assumed is the middle of last channel of the river when there was one.. interesting situation, isn't it... what makes matters worse is that there is a ton of smuggling and illegal immigration in this little stretch, (I think it's El Chapo's territory, the Sinaloa Cartel), since there are farms and roads right on the other side of the river levee, so it's a 20 mile, now ten mile, miniature version of the Rio Grande... Hit Morelos Dam, and the river goes from being a river, deeper than your head ( I swam in it in two spots.. north of Yuma, and right where it enters Mexico on one side), and navigable by tubers and even the Border Patrol Boats, to nothing, since this is where Mexico siphons off what must be 99% of the water that makes it to the border to Mexicali and the fields around it.. On the other side of this diversion dam, you see a few guys cast netting for bait fish, and the water is maybe three feet deep in a pool and trickles out from there...Mountain Dew film crew and some babes in bikini's.. green with cottonwoods.. oh and, let's not forget the drug couriers who started coughing from about 20 feet on the other side of the 20 foot wide river as we sat there (I'll get to that), me thinking we were in wilderness.. it was nuts... and within a mile south, the river was just a pile of heaped garbage and a braid of sand washes. After crossing an irrigation ditch that did run full, under the over watch of a big agent from Texas, I drove around but heeded his advice to not go down into the dry braids of sand that were the remnants of the Colorado, just to stay on the dirt roads that ran along it and in his field of vision.. Between these two points, I used my woods sense to follow along with my eyes, and told a third Agent I pulled over to talk to that you could see the transition from the last tall cottonwoods running south to just salt cedar (a sad little invasive that now rules the river banks and washes in many places, all the way up into Utah), at a bend in the river a bit far from the levee top patrol road, that they recommended I not go to.. so I made it within 200 yards, saw both sides of it a mile up and a mile down, but the true end of the Colorado where it stood 2 months or so ago was in a no mans land I dared not to enter, no matter how many Latin hot spots I had visited and pushed the boundaries of.. somehow I had less courage when it was one of my own countrymen telling me it wasn't a good idea... that Gringo invulnerability of surprise no longer on my side in the last yards of my own land.. I took off for San Diego relieved to not be dealing with that tension anymore..but appreciative of the agents who had taken the time to tell me stories and show me around..no matter how much I might curse 'Big Gubbmnt'!
10 miles south and it's gone..
soaked into the sand... it's profound.  I learned a few other things that night and the next day.. most Border Patrol agents, unlike the often surly customs guys at the border crossings, are pretty chill and friendly dudes... and can be helpful. You see, their trucks are parked and watching like every 200 yards along that stretch, which seemed like overkill at first, but after a few conversations didn't.
You see, if you talk to one, or one sees you, they all know you are there pretty quickly, and they pass you along to where you need to be like a smuggling ring.. OK, maybe a bad metaphor... like a good corporate phone system.
 They sit there all day, for hours on end, and the more thoughtful of them not only know the area extremely well, almost down to the tree, but they have had time to ponder the river and the things around them. So that first evening, after introducing myself to one, he told me the skinny.. they can't tell me not to go down there as an American Citizen, I can go right up to the river if I want to, but it's dangerous, not just kind of or possibly dangerous.. there are lookouts for the smugglers in the bushes every few dozen yards it seemed more or less.. sometimes they get drunk and taunt the Border Patrol out of Boredom from the other side. When I was right on that corner by Yuma right above the dam, right at sunset that first night, I decided to take a dip in the river, I didn't know precisely if the other side was US or Mexican, I was that close to the line, and maybe didn't realize the wire literally next to me stretching across was the border marker, right by this cleared pull out I parked on and ambled down to the river from, and since it was sunset, the guy hooting at me from the other side all the sudden was indistinct, I had to look for a gun belt in his silhouette while treading water and wondering how much fertilizer and e-coli was in the river to figure out he was Mexican by the lack of one, and not a border patrol agent.. he was laughing at me for being dumb enough to swim, or maybe he thought I was some fugitive or returning mule and he could help me for a tip, no gun belt.. yup. that's Mexico. The guy was only 40 feet from me.

Now the agents would hand me to each other by radio to see different things.. I would drive a few hundred yards, and another would show me a river gage, or the dam, or some other detail, and maybe would swap stories or ask me what I had learned about the river so far.. as it got dark, they told me again, they can't tell me where and where not to go, but it was apparent the witching hour had arrived, radio traffic had picked up, people were gonna come across the border with either drugs or looking for jobs within minutes as the sun fell, and people got shot here at times, and the cartelistos even grabbed farmers who worked the no mans lands between the fence and the irrigation canal road where the Border Patrol cruises the siding road in their vehicles
 and tried to get kidnappers ransom to let them back over the border.. the other side of that road was truly lawless.. so I went back to my motel to mull this all over.
I decided the next day to go back in search of the true dry spot, since these guys were remarkably helpful. With only one section of fence, by Gadsden, since they got tired of people sprinting through town and jumping into SUV's all the time.. it's around where the north end of that fence is that the river disappeared when I was there, but getting there was not as easy as you might think. Anywhere else in America, I would just troop down there and take a peek, but this is where it went from fascinating to wild... I went in search of the spot twice.. my first time in the heat of midday, but cowed by the stories I backed off and drove south furthur down around the spot where the border corner is, where the river turns south after Yuma, and in about a quarter mile or less, the west side of the River goes from US (or almost, I think it is an Indian Reservation) to Mexican territory and the town of San Luis, and then you hit the Bridge and can go no further without checking into Mexico.
I came back north as things cooled off.
After the same kind of baton pass between 4 different agents, all nice, one even female, I found what I was looking for.. there was a spot that in any other place would have been bad ass for a rope swing... an agent from Chicago walked down a little wood log retained dirt staircase with me to where the river was 2 feet or so deep, and you could see trout in the river, and if it wasn't for him having body armor and an M4 in his hands, would have been a pretty bad ass pastoral little spot, like a Kentucky swimmin' holler.
 That's when I let out some tension and heard someone cough from the thicket a few meters away, just like the night before with the guy hooting at me. The Agent didn't hear it since he was focused on something else as we gazed at the water, kind of relaxing for a split second, so I mentioned it to him. We beat feet up the dirt steps and back to relative safety. I feel like a coward now knowing these two did that 20 mile stretch: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/video_colorado_river_running_near_empty/2443/
This looks like the fence near Gadsden, just to prove it can be a busy place.
If that is the nadir I have been describing, let's get back to the 'o-p-e' in Hope, since I said the Cienega was the stalwart H..
I had a long conversation with Dr. Francisco Zamorra in Tucson, the first time I ever did an interview for this Blog, God knows I put a lot of effort in for both of my readers.. Hi Mom! yup, wearing clean underwear..
Dr. Zamorra is Mexican, got his undergrad in Baja but went to Oregon for a PHD, but has lived in Tucson for 20 years, and in his current capacity find's himself in the Delta every other weekend, kind of a bi national commuter, a bit like the river itself.. you see, when it comes to this Minute 319 stuff, he's the guy, he might as well be Secretary Ken Salazar, because when it comes to fulfilling the requirements of Minute 319, a huge burden falls upon him and The Sonoran Institute to Fulfill, about a 6 million dollar burden I think he said, depending upon where water prices go in Mexico...
You see, every renegotiation of a water or border treaty between the United States of America and Los Estados Unidos de Mexico becomes a 'minute' under the Aegis of something called the International Border and Water Commission,
many of them are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, might be about bridge construction over the Rio Grande, or some other minor detail requiring agreement between the two nations, but Minute 319 was quite different.. somehow the big guys got together, Cabinet secretaries, not lower level guys making the trains run on time, and decided to if not fix the river, restore it to some holy pristine state, to at least throw it a lifeline, give it's dehydrated body an IV and some shade, contingent upon some follow through over the course of five years...
The essence of the negotiation was this if I understand it:
If the Mexican Environmental Agencies, working with the Sonoran Institute to raise and administer the Money, can buy up 50 thousand Acre Feet of Regular Flow to the Delta, from the Mexican half of the ledger agreed upon during that original treaty of 1944, essentially buying water rights piecemeal from open Mexican market dealing with water that makes it to the Morelos Dam and is now used for Mexicali, it's urban environs, and farming in that area, to have run that much down the river by the end of 5 years, the clock commencing at the signing of the Minute 319 last November, 2012, then the US will give them Pulse Flows, 250k Acre Feet flood events, every few years, to stimulate the natural spring flood cycles in that environment, actually, scratch that. to just simulate the river running normally back in the day, but compared to how it flows now, it will feel like a big springtime flood event, and it will help distribute seeds and revitalize the ecosystem. In fact, my math shows (this is a pretty full envelope by now!) that the pulse flow is equivalent to 17 and a third days of old normal flow... I don't know the details of how they plan to release it, but it sure as heck is gonna help.
So if the Sonoran Institute and the Gobierno De Mexico can create a regular flow to reawaken the Delta, the US will give it these Pulse Flows to get it dancing again...
All they gotto do, is raise about 15 million bucks... I think he said he has about 6 in the bag already.. it's kind of unique, pulling the private sector and non profits into the mix, buying this stuff on the open market, which I thought would be well worthy of an NPR Marketplace bit. Francisco described it to me this way.. two Employees of the Mexican Environmental Administration buy them up as they come on the market, mostly advertised by flier on bulletin boards throughout the various water districts in the Mexicali Agricultural region. Simple as that..  Now buying this water on that market won't account for all 15 Million.. they estimate maybe half of that at current market prices, which they don't want to shock, so they are buying slowly, but they have other plans, to reforest huge areas, protecting and expanding the seed they have in the Cienga, and also, preparing for the pulse flow...
Now here comes one more biggie.. They don't have to wait until they earn the pulse flow to get one.. the first one is a freebie.. it comes when they are ready to receive it, which could be this Spring.. yup, Spring of 2014..
When I think of the possibilities of this, it makes me a little emotional.. I am not sure if it will flow past the Morelos Dam, or flow through the Farm Canal System near Mexicali and pop back out further down the river channel as Francisco implied, down The Hardy River (Party at the Hardy!) and back into the last channel.. but for me, the idea of the river flowing down that section of the border, past all those Border Guards I talked to, past those trafficking soldiers and their Narco Bosses cruising in their big Doge Ram's, grandparents telling their kids that this is what it was like when they were children, that they weren't wrong to have had nostalgia for such a dusty and neglected place, it seems like, if you'll pardon what seems like a pun, a Watershed Moment... I picture the tall laconic Guard I had the most genial conversation with, he was from Utah I think, scratching his head in satisfaction, after two years of his life staring at the same dry section of border, his daily chess board, all the sudden, it's a river, a torrent, a thing of beauty, and as much as a healthy crop of cottonwoods might make his job a bit harder than it used to be, give them guys more to hide behind, a bit more mud to crawl through for the predator and the prey, it might also add a bit of perspective to the whole scene.. as water to me is a symbol of getting what you need, and these dusty border towns, it's hard to say people get what they need when they succumb to some of the desperation you see in some of these towns.. some  towns worse, some better, but none of them perfect.. but maybe if we take care of Mother Nature and the Mighty Colorado, she will in turn offer us other ways to take care of ourselves... Let the River Roll, and either this spring, 2014 or the next, if I can take Francisco and the US Government at their word.. you don't have to just hope for it, you can count on it... in fact.. they are already clearing out the brush and getting ready....

Update: Flood Event March 2014
A little birdy whispered it in my ear, and now it's made it online:
there will be a release of water sometime this March 2014 into the delta, despite the drought, if all goes well... it's the moment you have been waiting for, thirsty Colorado... normally in the desert, they recommend you sip, but I think you are ready for some deep gulps...
Second Update: By now you know, the event happened, and it was a great day for the Environment, Mexico and the United States. The Desert was so thirsty, it took a few weeks for the pulse flow to make it to the sea, but it kept flowing for the whole alloted time, like a month, and finally made it to the sea. How do I know? A buddy of mine decided to float the river and document it, but they had to pause a few times to let the sand fill up with water:
Rowan Jacobsen Outside Article on The Pulse Flow in the Colorado
I wish I had been at that celebration in San Luis!
It made it, if only briefly..

 Second Update: December 2015 Fundraising Completed
In December 2015, Raise the River, their parent organization The Sonora Institute, and their  companero Mexicano Pronatura Noroeste have raised the 10 million (I felt like we talked about 15, but it was down to ten. maybe 6 for the water rights and 4 for the rest, the plantings and administration and land to restore) they sought to create a regular base flow made up of purchased rights from the Mexican side of the border as per the treaty. It will flow as long as there is water to feed the rights... and expect another pulse flow in a few years if all goes well..unless somehow Will Farrel messes it up!

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