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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reclaiming the Colorado

Air Date: Week of

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The great Colorado River rushes out of the Rockies and across the southwest. It used to gush into the gulf of Baja California. But agriculture and cities now drain the river before it even reaches its end. Reporter Ilsa Setziol of KPCC reports nature is making amazing use of the meager water that does reach the gulf.


GELLERMAN: The Colorado River powered the growth of the southwest and sustains its economy. It waters crops and fills bathtubs. Before the U.S. built massive dams across it, the Colorado roared into Baja and Sonora, Mexico, creating vast wetlands, and flowed into the Gulf of California. But today, the mighty river rarely reaches the gulf. From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, Ilsa Setziol reports that Mexicans are hoping to reclaim the river, restore its delta - and they’re looking north for help.


SETZIOL: Onesimo Gonzales sits in an outdoor kitchen, singing traditional songs and reminiscing. He looks out onto a dusty landscape of sand, rock and shrubs. But his steady eyes also gaze inward, to a time more than half a century ago.

GONZALES [IN SPANISH]: It used to be very beautiful this time of year. The plants would all be blooming. Everything smelled wonderful. We had lots of water. Everywhere. There was a lot to eat.

SETZIOL: The 70-year-old Gonzales is tribal chief of the native Cucapá people in Northern Baja. He remembers before the United States dammed the Colorado River, there were lush woodlands here – many deer, as well as vast wetlands filled with fish and birds.

GONZALES [IN SPANISH]: Now, everything is dry. The ironwood is the only thing alive, that old desert tree and us are the only things that survive here.

SETZIOL: Gonzales says he just can’t understand it. How could the United States take almost all of the water from the Colorado River without considering how it would ruin the delta and the Cucapá people? Fishing used to be at the center of Cucapá life. To save the fish, the government has banned much of the fishing around the delta. Gonzales says Mexican fishermen are so poor they often ignore the prohibition.

GONZALES [IN SPANISH]: The government saying no more fishing is like someone cutting off our heads.

SETZIOL: But as big as the U.S. dams are, they can’t always hold back the full U.S. share of the river – 90 percent. In recent years, after big rainfalls, the reservoirs filled up and the United States had to let excess water flow down river to Mexico. This overflow and other flukes have led to a small revival of nature in pockets of the delta.


SETZOIL: About 30 miles southeast of Gonzales’ village biologist Osvel Hinojosa navigates a canoe through a large marsh filled with blond cattails. Yellow-headed blackbirds are perched atop the tall plants. [BIRDS CHIRPING] Marsh wrens collect strands for their nests. But this afternoon, Hinojosa is searching for birds that are seldom seen, because they live hidden in dense thickets of vegetation and because they are rare.


SETZOIL: Hinojosa turns into a canal that cuts through a large swath of cattails, swaying in the breeze. And that’s when we hear the unusual cluck that gives clapper rails their name:


SETZOIL: The abundance of Yuma clapper rails here tells Hinojosa that the Cienega is an exemplary restoration – even though it happened by accident. The marsh was created when farmers in Arizona began dumping water too salty for agriculture into the Sonoran desert. Hinojosa says the Cienega is proof that returning more water to the delta would help preserve many species that live on both sides of the border.

HINOJOSA: Very little water would make a huge difference, probably just one percent of the river water will make a huge difference, not just for the Cienega, for the whole delta.

SETZIOL: American environmental groups and the Mexican government hope the United State will let more water flow into Mexico. But the U.S. government says the issue was settled in 1944 when a treaty between the two countries divvied up the river and gave Mexico ten percent.

Bennett Raley, the Interior Department’s top water official, says additional water for the delta should come from Mexico’s share.

RALEY: Further constraining – or defining – reality is the United State’s share of the water of the Colorado River is completely allocated. And those that suggest that it’s just one percent, what they’re really talking about is taking away significant quantities of water from either Arizona, Southern California, or Nevada.

SETZIOL: Four years of drought along the river have left U.S. water agencies scrambling after every drop. So it’s not only unlikely that the delta will get more water, it’s likely it will get less. The U.S. is moving ahead with plans to desalinate the salty waste water that now sustains the Cienega marsh. And Osvel Hinojosa says the U.S. has drained its reservoirs so low that it could be years before the Delta gets any spillover again.


HINOJOSA: For the next few years we expect probably just a dry riverbed here. So all that has been restored might be lost again if we don’t do anything about it.

SETZIOL: As the sun begins to set, Hinojosa paddles toward the center of the marsh. His steel boat slides over gentle currents that murmur through the silvery pink water. Then he stops and listens to the music of the marsh.


SETZOIL: For Living on Earth, I’m Ilsa Setziol in Sonora, Mexico.




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