Channeling the Colorado River Delta Back From the Dead

As a matter of geographic trivia, did you ever wonder where the Colorado River drains into the ocean? That's actually kind of a trick question: it doesn't.

Like too many of the world's great rivers today -- the Ganges, the Yellow, the Nile, for other distressing examples -- the Colorado River never makes it to the ocean in any recognizable form. In fact, it's rarely been closer than a hundred miles to its natural drainage point, into the Gulf of California, its remnants diverted by the Morelos Dam.

As you might expect, the disappearance of the Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez, has had a rather dramatic effect on the Colorado River Delta, and not for the better.

Almost 30 years of the river rarely reaching the sea, has resulted in an immense stretch of riparian forest having all but completely disappeared, replaced by invasive tamarisk shrubs. This has deprived hundreds of migratory bird species of a previously important place to rest and shelter during their arduous crossing of the Sonora Desert.

As it turns out, however, it may be possible to restore much of the delta with some surprisingly reasonable water management practices. An agreement between the US and Mexico called Minute 319 was signed in November of 2012, and last March, in accordance with it, the first "pulse flow" -- basically a small simulated spring flood along the delta -- occurred.

Scientists and observers from universities and government agencies of both countries were there to see what would happen, and the results, by all accounts, have been extremely promising.

A periodic artificial flood has already hinted strongly that the delta is dormant, not dead, and with an eye towards the longer term, a modest provision for maintenance could be of huge benefit to both countries human inhabitants and to our wildlife. It's nice to see some good news for a change.

The fact the water flowing down the main river channel was tapped for the exclusive benefit of the environment, may well be an unprecedented demonstration of cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico on much needed environmental sustainability issues.

What the future may hold for the Colorado River Delta remains unclear, but in the middle of what researchers are describing as the worst drought in the American West's recorded history, it's important to remember that preserving the environment isn't just a luxury to be reserved for times of plenty.