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Colorado River Flow Returns to Natural Course Through Mexico

Conservation groups in the United States and Mexico have helped broker a bilateral agreement between the countries to re-water the Colorado’s course between the border with Mexico and the Gulf of California. It was signed in San Diego on November 20.
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For some tribal members living alongside the Colorado River, a new plan to reconnect the river to the sea remedies a long-time spiritual wrong. For others, it underscores the urgency of finalizing claims on the over-allocated river, since everyone else appears to be getting a share.

Conservation groups in the United States and Mexico have helped broker a bilateral agreement between the countries to re-water the Colorado’s course between the border with Mexico and the Gulf of California. It was signed in San Diego on November 20.

Currently, the river flows 1,450 miles from its headwaters in Colorado and through Utah and northwestern Arizona – including the Grand Canyon – before forming the border between Arizona and Nevada. Its natural course would then take it across the border with Mexico and into the Gulf of California, but in recent decades that reach has almost always run dry. Most of the river makes a sharp right on the American side via the All-American Canal, to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley. What’s left – usually not more than the 1.5 million acre-feet owed to Mexico per the Treaty of 1944 – gets diverted as soon as it hits the Mexican line, also via a man-made diversion, to Baja California’s Mexicali Valley.

The flow south of that last diversion dwindled after Glen Canyon Dam went up in the mid-1960s, and stopped altogether in 1998. During that time, the Cocopah people in Mexico have faced an interruption in their traditional ways of life, which revolved around fishing and a healthy river system.

“Our hope is by restoring these flows, we can restore that river system,” said Taylor Hawes of The Nature Conservancy, one of the groups backing the deal.

A bi-national coalition of non-governmental conservation organizations including Pronatura Noroeste, the Sonoran Institute, Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy have been collaborating through an entity called the Colorado River Delta Water Trust to participate in the discussions leading up to the agreement, whose main players include the United States, Mexico, and the seven Colorado River basin states. The bi-national agreement, known as Minute 319, is an addendum to the 1944 treaty that defines how the U.S. and Mexico share the Colorado’s water.

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The water to restore flows to the natural delta will come from a combination of sources. Some will be made available by conservation, through more efficient irrigation infrastructure, and most will come from willing sellers in northern Mexico that benefit from that country’s Colorado River apportionment.

“There’s been a reduced ability to irrigate, because of declining infrastructure and saline lands,” Hawes said. “We’re taking water that farmers can’t use anymore.” Many such farmers are transitioning out of farming, she said, and revenue from their unused water rights may help fund career shifts.

Concessions on both sides made the deal palatable to the nations. Mexico has agreed to accept less water in some years when the ongoing drought in the United States limits supply, and the United States has agreed to let Mexico share the surplus in good years. Mexico will be allowed to store water in Lake Mead, which is expected to help keep reservoir levels higher, thereby protecting Las Vegas’ ability to pump water out of the reservoir. There’s money involved that will help Mexico upgrade crumbling water delivery infrastructure. Part of the plan also involves funding and a work plan to rehabilitate the Delta area, which has been neglected as well as bone-dry in recent years. The agreement is meant to last for five years, with the option to extend it if all goes well.

As for indigenous communities, it’s not just the Cocopah who have interests in the river. Many tribes in the United States – whether they live alongside the Colorado or not – consider it sacred. And to have it stop short of its oceanic destiny all these years has been spiritually insulting.

“The Colorado River’s initial route, it’s ceremonial and ancestral route, was to go all the way into the bigger waters,” said James Uqualla, a holy person with the Havasupai Tribe, which lives in the bottom of the western Grand Canyon, “That was meant to always be in play for the well-being of mankind. Mankind has created challenges with dams, taking away from the main essence and power. That has diluted its spiritual strength. For Native people to be able to regain that birthright, that spirituality, that flow, is good news for me.”

But not all tribal members are focused on the spiritual boon that comes from restoring the river to its natural course. For LeRoy Shingoitewa, chairman of the Hopi Tribe, the new agreement is a stark reminder of how limited water supplies are in the over-committed Colorado – and how urgent it is to turn aboriginal claims to its waters into actual water deliveries. The tribe, along with others, has water rights settlements pending on the Colorado River and on the Little Colorado River, one of its main tributaries.

“It just brings to the forefront that water has become so precious and now everybody wants a piece of the Colorado River,” Shingoitewa said. “That’s why we’re working so hard as a tribe to get water to the reservation. Mexico is also in dire need of water. There’s concern that water is going to become a rare commodity in the future if we’re not careful.”