• Watered Down

    Can the mighty Colorado River reach the sea?
    By Scott McMillion
    Photographs by Peter McBride


ver its 1,450-mile tumble toward the sea,

the Colorado River presents one marvel after another.

It waters the high-altitude hay meadows in the Rocky Mountains and succors sun-drenched melon fields in the desert along the Mexican border. It carries snowmelt from the Never Summer Mountains to places where the snow never sticks. Along the way, it flows through the showerheads and Jacuzzis of Las Vegas, then takes a scrubbing before pumps launch it skyward in those elaborate fountains, entertaining tourists with what the gamblers bathed in yesterday.

Los Angeles takes a big gulp. So do Denver and Phoenix and Tucson, all places separated from the river by altitude or mountain ranges that engineers have outmaneuvered with pumps, concrete and gravity.

Almost everybody in the United States takes a sip. If you eat winter lettuce or wear a cotton T-shirt or drink milk from California, there’s a good chance you’re consuming Colorado River water that helped transform soil and sunlight into chlorophyll and fiber and protein.

And along the way, the river carves the Grand Canyon, where it shows us the bones of the Earth, how the river used to work.

Then, just a few hundred miles downstream, before it reaches the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, the river runs out of gas. It dies. What little water remains has been used and returned eight times by then, the once-awesome river reduced to a salinated dribble. The vast delta that once accommodated steamships now lies flat and parched and desolate.

The ending is one of the first things people learn about the river. “It no longer reaches the ocean,” says Taylor Hawes, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River program. “There’s just not enough water to go around”—for people, let alone fish and other species.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Despite growing demand, Hawes and her team envision a future of perhaps not plenty but at least adequacy, one in which all parties—fish included—get what they need from the river. “We believe that human needs can and must be met without sacrificing the health of freshwater ecosystems,” she says.

Given the size of the Colorado River’s drainage basin—246,000 thousand square miles—Hawes’ job is as big as Texas. Literally. But she’s undaunted.

“If there is political will,” Hawes says, “we can resolve 90 percent of the river’s problems.”

Making the Desert Bloom
Like most of America’s big rivers, the Colorado is managed. But this river isn’t just managed. It’s operated, almost like a water factory.

Early engineers assigned to harness the river employed a catchphrase: “Make the desert bloom.” So bloom it did, with crops and cities that germinated from more than 100 dams and diversions, including a dozen tunnels that bore through the Rocky Mountains to irrigate cities on the dry side of Colorado’s mountains. All that infrastructure represents some astounding engineering. Hoover Dam near Las Vegas contains enough concrete to build a highway from New York to San Francisco.

A mountain of court battles has accompanied those engineering projects and the water they move around. The Colorado has been called the most litigated river in the world. Decades of laws and lawsuits, contracts and policy, combine to create what is called the Law of the River. Its basis rests on the 1922 Colorado River Compact and a 1944 treaty, which divide the river’s flow between seven American states and Mexico.

Trouble is, in recent years, the total demands on the river have exceeded the supply—by perhaps 20 percent.
Thirty million people—from California to Colorado—drink from the river. But household plumbing and suburban lawns account for only about 15 percent of the water that leaves the river. Agriculture takes three-quarters of it, irrigating 3 million acres, producing as much as 80 percent of America’s winter crops and 13 percent of its livestock.
With all that water diverted for human needs, plenty of wildlife goes wanting.

Of the 43 native fish in the vast drainage, 30 are found no place else on Earth. Of those 30, four have gone extinct, 12 are endangered and four are threatened—in large part by the removal of water from the Colorado and its tributaries.

Giving Nature A Voice
“A single day of dry river can spell curtains for a lot of these native fish,” says Dan Campbell, who heads the Conservancy’s work on the Verde River in Arizona and works with state agencies and irrigators to help protect those fish.

The Verde, a tributary of the Colorado, flows for 140 miles, then goes dry after serving the needs of Phoenix. Campbell’s work focuses on 100 miles of the Verde’s upper stretches. There, an antiquated system of irrigation ditches drains much of the river; Campbell is helping irrigators figure out ways to take only what they need and avoid depleting the river’s main stem, a critical migration pathway for many native fishes.

The Conservancy is applying a similar tactic on the Yampa River in Colorado. Farther south in the state, on the Dolores, the Conservancy helped eliminate thirsty invasive tamarisk trees from 70 miles of riverbanks. The organization has also focused on a plan to lease water from the district’s irrigation board to raise the water level for fish during dry months. That effort remains a work in progress, but any good water deal, say Conservancy experts on water management, typically takes a decade to complete.

However long it takes, the Conservancy wants to make sure nature has a seat at the table when new water deals are cut. Hawes, the Colorado River program director, knows that a wholesale rewriting of Western water law is a “nonstarter.” Even so, she adds, “What we’re trying to do is give nature a voice in these water agreements and management decisions.”

One of Hawes’ long-term goals is getting water managers and water users to work with the Conservancy, to focus on the health of the entire river system, from Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains to Mexico’s dry delta. “We don’t have enough water to do everything we want to do,” she says, “so we have to manage it better.”

That was made clear by events last year. “The drought,” says Hawes, speaking of the long dry spell that has beset the West for more than 10 years, “was a crisis, but it was also an opportunity.” It pushed people to work together, to seek solutions instead of lawsuits. Now officials along the Colorado are discussing how to bank water in the event of an even more devastating drought. And while these discussions include more reservoirs, they also incorporate newer ideas like financial incentives for farmers to share water with cities and wildlife.
At the international level, the Conservancy has a seat at the negotiating table established after the United States and Mexico issued a 2007 joint statement pledging to explore cooperation on river issues. The Conservancy is one of three environmental organizations that have joined a host of U.S. and Mexican officials in talks aimed at clarifying the 1944 water treaty. The negotiations, Hawes says, have produced significant steps toward that goal and bore fruit following a 2010 earthquake in northern Mexico that damaged irrigation systems. As a result of the binational negotiations, the Bureau of Reclamation allowed Mexico to store its irrigation water in Lake Mead. This solution benefited people in both countries: It will help water Mexican crops after the irrigation ditches are repaired; in the meantime, it is helping American cities weather the drought.
“If we can show it’s legally possible to bank water in Mead for irrigation,” she says, “we can show it’s a good thing to do for wildlife.”

Fixing a Frayed Rope

On the Verde River, Dan Campbell can point to hopeful signs: Beavers are returning, and otter populations are growing. That means things are moving in the right direction.
All these smaller projects on creeks and tributaries have big impacts on the Colorado’s main stem, says Campbell, who likens restoring the river system to fixing a frayed rope: Putting it back together means rewinding the fibers, which in this case means fixing the tributaries.

“If we’re ever going to put that river together again, ” he says, “if we want the main stem to flow, we’ve got to work on the ratty stringers and tips of rivers that reach way up high.”

Reassembling the Colorado drainage won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But restoring critical reaches of the Colorado and its tributaries can provide safe havens for native fish and other wildlife.

And if this restoration comes to pass, it might someday be possible to float a boat through the Colorado’s delta into Mexico—probably not a big boat, but maybe a kayak or a canoe—and to slap mosquitoes and hear the birdsong.

And that could be yet another marvel on the Colorado, something brand-new to admire: a river going home.

"It no longer reaches the ocean. There’s just not enough water to go around."

Taylor Hawes, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River program