New Value for Old Water

By Glenn, Edward; Congdon, Chelsea et al. | The World and I, April 1997 | Go to article overview

New Value for Old Water


Glenn, Edward, Congdon, Chelsea, Garcia, Jaqueline, The World and I


Managing wastewaters and floodwaters in the Colorado River delta to support wetland habitat is bringing a healthy collaboration between previously conflicting constituencies.

Straddling the border between Mexico and the United States is the vast, fertile, and nearly flat Colorado River delta. In this dry land, water for agricultural and municipal uses is at a premium, and the river channel is bone dry except for occasional periods when precipitation exceeds the storage capacities of upstream reservoirs.

In November 1996, the heads of water management agencies of the United States and Mexico--along with scientists and representatives of agricultural interests, municipalities, and environmental groups--met to discuss priorities for managing the waste flows in the delta. Surprisingly to many, the group reached a consensus that wetland restoration is desirable and achievable, and not necessarily in conflict with the agricultural and municipal priorities that had previously dominated water-use planning.

How did these often competing interests achieve a spirit of cooperation? Through new ways of thinking about water management, particularly about the value of "waste" waters. When wastewaters are viewed as resources, water managers are more likely to take the time to plan for their proper use, rather than dispose of them carelessly. A similar shift in perspective could perhaps lead to progress on other issues for which human and environmental values appear to be in conflict. In a broader context, the history of the Colorado River delta since it came under human management is a case study in how the underlying guiding values of society determine the way resources are developed. In addition, this history illustrates how the underlying values inevitably broaden over time to encompass environmental concerns and in turn lead to new and creative ways of managing resources.

The value of a wild river

The Colorado was once a wild desert river, carrying summer snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains across the southwestern deserts to the Gulf of California. It also carried silt, carved from the red desert soil. Understandably, when Friar Francisco Garces viewed the muddy river from the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1776, he named it Rio Colorado ("river colored red"). The earth that once filled the Grand Canyon formed the delta, a vast wetland ecosystem where the river entered the sea.

The river changed its serpentine course often. Extreme tidal variations in the gulf piled up the oncoming waters, causing them to spill over upstream river banks, creating 2,000 square miles (5,500 square km) of wetlands that were an oasis of life in the driest part of the Sonoran Desert. The wetlands consisted of tidal saltmarshes, brackish and freshwater swamps, and forests along the river itself. Jaguars stalked deer, and beavers built dams along the river. Hundreds of thousands of migratory and resident waterfowl used the wetlands. Twenty thousand Cocopa people sustained themselves hunting, fishing, and gathering in the delta wetlands.

Harnessed for human needs

The guiding value for developing the Colorado River delta from 1901, when the first large irrigation canal was dug, to 1963, when the last major impoundment on the river was finished, was simple: human needs first. The river was developed to provide cheap water and electricity to induce settlement in the Southwest. Until recently, environmental values played little part in water-management decisions about the Colorado.

Today the wild river is gone, and with it many of the natural aquatic ecosystems of the delta. The summer floods are now impounded behind a series of 20 dams and diverted into canals carrying the water as far away as Los Angeles. The Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams generate electricity and distribute water throughout seven western states and Mexico. Two and a half million acres of irrigated farmland have been reclaimed from the delta region. …

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