The Colorado River Delta is proof of nature’s resilience

After decades-long decline, a dying wetland gets a second chance, with the help of cross-border collaboration between the United States and Mexico.

The Morelos Dam groaned open at the Arizona−Mexico border on March 23, 2014, unleashing a surge or “pulse flow” of water into one very thirsty stretch of the Colorado River. As the gray-green torrent roared south, residents of the Mexican town of San Luis Rio Colorado joyfully waded into spontaneous pools and instant lagoons.

From an overhead bridge, Jennifer Pitt watched the ebullient celebration. As the director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project at the time, she’d been a key player in launching this release of 106,000 acre-feet of water (enough to fill some 52,000 Olympic-size swimming pools), aimed at jump-starting restoration of the Colorado River Delta. Formed where the river meets the Gulf of California, the delta was once a vast, wildlife-rich wetland. But dams on the Colorado had diverted most of its water to thirsty cities and farms north of the border, leaving much of the delta to slowly dry up. Now there was a chance to reverse that decades-long decline.

“A cheer went up when the water began to pour down, first in a trickle, and then a steady gushing flow,” she wrote. She also mused on how long it might take the river to move downstream.

Her wait was brief. Some eight weeks later, a small, white Cessna circled high above quilted sand flats to the south, where a delicate tendril of water was slowly weaving toward the Gulf of California. In the plane’s passenger seat, a scientist named Francisco Zamora snapped away on his camera. It was the first time the river—which starts its journey 1,450 miles away, in the Colorado Rockies—had reached the sea in nearly 20 years. And for almost that long, Zamora had worked toward this reunion.

As director of the Colorado River Delta Program for the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute, he’d teamed up with Pitt (and more than 50 other scientists and water managers) back in 2002. Together they began plotting their vision for the rebirth of what was once North America’s largest wetland, a 3,300-square-mile oasis populated by vast migratory flocks, prowling jaguars, and rustic fishing villages. That trickle of water, more than a decade in the making, buoyed their hope.

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