The Colorado River reveals its secrets. For decades, a World War II landing craft was submerged 200 feet below the surface of Lake Mead – but now it’s beached, rusting in the sun. It has become a troubling marker of the vulnerability of the river and the drought of Intermountain West.
The immediate impact of what is being called the most severe mega-drought in 1,200 years has been sharp reductions in water allocation to downstream users, with consumption in southern Nevada reduced by seven billion gallons. Then there’s the fear that if Lake Mead’s water levels continue to drop, it may not be able to generate the electricity it currently provides to 1.3 million people in Nevada. in Arizona and California.
Yet the reduced reservoirs tell a different story about the Colorado River, one of the world’s great plumbing systems, which supports agriculture downstream and sends drinking water to an estimated 40 million people. The story is that where the river ends, in the Gulf of California, it slowly comes to life.
For decades, the United States sucked so much water from Colorado that only a trickle, if not as much, reached its parched, sprawling delta in Mexico. Once covering 9,650 square miles, the delta has shrunk to less than one percent of its original extent. Human diversions wrung it out.
It has not always been so. In 1922, conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that he paddled a canoe through the green lagoons of the delta and marveled as “cormorants drove their black prows in search of slippery mullets” and “mallards , the ducks and the teals rushed towards the sky with alarm”. When a troop of egrets settled on a distant green willow tree, Leopold said they looked like a “premature snowstorm”.
Leopold’s lyrical vision had the misfortune, a century ago, to coincide with the signing of the Colorado Compact, which sealed the destiny of the delta. Endorsed by Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California, the pact quantified Colorado’s annual flow and put the seven states in competition to protect, if not expand, their individual shares. The compact turned the delta into a dust bowl.
For decades, environmental and tribal activists and nonprofits have protested the devastation that the massive diversions to fill the Powell and Mead Reservoirs have wrought on the delta’s once thriving human and biological communities. They lobbied for remedies from the US and Mexican governments and the legislatures of the bordering states.
It wasn’t until 1993, when Bruce Babbitt became Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, that the political dynamic changed. Babbitt argued that states must demonstrate how they intend to operate within their allocated amount. If they didn’t, he said, he wouldn’t approve of the excess water, a threat particularly directed at California, which routinely commandeers any excess flow that other states don’t use.
River activists immediately demanded that some of the water savings flow to the delta. They came to nothing until 2014, when Mexico and the United States followed through on their earlier commitment to inject more water into the delta’s riparian habitats.
Since then, both countries have periodically released water to mimic historic seasonal flooding. These tiny pulses of liquid energy, which account for less than one percent of Los Angeles’ total annual water consumption, have had an outsized impact.
With restoration ecologists to guide the process, some wetlands have recovered, small forests have flourished, and native plants and animals have taken hold. Remote sensing cameras have recently spotted beavers gnawing on poplar trees.
We don’t know how current drought management solutions could cripple these recent interventions that brought life to the downstream end of the river. Meanwhile, remember that Leopold was visiting the delta where he watched humming sandhill cranes circling above his head. The sight brought him joy as it made him feel that he was with them in “the distant vastness of space and time”.
It’s a compelling statement that the Colorado River must be kept alive until its very end.
Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range.org, writersontherange.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about the West. He is an environmental historian at Pomona College; his next book is Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril.