A RIVER ONCE RAN THROUGH IT - the Colorado River Delta Was an Oasis for Wildlife and People until the Water Stopped Flowing

Article excerpt

Ejido Johnson, Mexico. In 1922, a few miles from this dusty farming village, a young forester named Aldo Leopold slipped his canoe into the lower Colorado River and quickly lost his way in a bewildering maze of green. "Verdant walls of mesquite and willow . . . a hundred green lagoons," the storied conservationist later wrote of the Colorado's lush delta. "The river was everywhere and nowhere."

Eighty years later, tracing the Colorado's path to the sea is just as bewildering, but it is anything but green. The semi- tropical marshes and wooded riverbanks have all but disappeared, replaced in many areas by a fissured moonscape of baked mud and desert weeds. And the Colorado itself--the great waterway of the American Southwest--is, in its final stages, a mere ditch in the sand.

"The Colorado ceases to exist here," says José Campoy, a Mexican biologist, as his Dodge Ram bounces over parched tidal flats that once oozed with life. "Every drop of water goes for cities, for farms. There is nothing left for nature, nothing for the river itself."

The transformation was gradual, yet astonishing when measured against the span of a single human life. Older villagers in Ejido Johnson still remember the wild river and emerald lagoons of Leopold's time, and some once made an easy living catching fish in the river's back channels. The 3,000-square-mile delta was then one of North America's most diverse ecosystems. At one time, it was home to as many as 400 plant species and an extraordinary array of birds, fish and mammals, ranging from the rare desert pupfish to coyotes and jaguars.

At the river's mouth in the Gulf of California, the daily churning of the tides blended fresh and salt water into the perfect nursery for tiny brown shrimp and the giant totoaba fish coveted by sportsmen.

That was before Hoover Dam. From the 1930s to the 1980s, ten major dams and dozens of irrigation canals, nearly all on the U.S. side of the border, reduced the river's flow to a trickle. These days, in normal years, the Colorado's last drops evaporate in the Sonoran Desert, miles before the river reaches the sea.

The dams aren't going away, but some now say it's time for the delta to reclaim a small piece of its natural inheritance. Armed with new scientific data, a coalition of university and government scientists, Native Americans and environmental groups (including NWF) are pressing the U.S. and Mexican governments to guarantee a minimum water flow for the Colorado's delta. Says Campoy, the Mexican government's chief scientist for the delta: "It's time to give a little bit back."

But to give water back to the delta, you first have to find it. In the thirsty Southwest, every drop of the Colorado River has been apportioned by treaties among more than a dozen national, state and tribal governments. Already, the agreements promise more water on paper than the river can deliver, but not nearly enough to meet the demands of booming Sunbelt cities.

"A lot of the U.S. agencies that manage the Colorado would tell you that they would like to see the delta ecosystem restored," says Kevin Doyle, director of habitat conservation programs in NWF's Western Natural Resource Center. "But that desire is confounded by the water demands that fuel the burgeoning growth of places like San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix, not to mention the need to restore the river's riparian areas on the U.S. side of the border."

The Colorado's final 100 miles from the U.S. border to the Gulf of California are a slow descent into one of the most hellishly dry places in the Western Hemisphere. Death from dehydration has long been a threat to tribes indigenous to the area. Historically, those tribes regarded the river as a symbol of life. Today their descendants' fates are intertwined with that of the Colorado in ways few could have imagined a century ago. …