In the current climate, speaking about water can often be disheartening: Water gaps, profound drought, escalating contention. But while those themes are extremely pertinent, they don’t tell the whole story. One experiment in particular reaffirms the notion that water law need not be stagnant; real, exciting changes can happen and are happening right now.
Water law in the West revolves around the historic Colorado River Compact. Formed in 1922, the Compact governs water allocation and use among the seven states in the Colorado River watershed: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. A 1944 treaty expanded upon this agreement to include Mexico, in recognition of the fact that the Colorado River runs through Mexico on its final push to the sea.
At least it used to. Historically, the mighty Colorado has coursed over 1,400 miles from its headwaters in the mountains of Colorado to its confluence with the ocean and the Gulf of California. Since the 1960s, however, the Colorado River has not consistently reached its lush delta. In fact, it hasn’t reached the sea at all since the early ’90s.
The Colorado River Delta was once an extremely biodiverse ecosystem, home to hundreds of resident and migratory species. It was an important connector along the Pacific Flyway, giving birds a welcome place to rest, feed and drink on their long journeys up and down the coast. Now, without water flowing through the delta, only 10 percent of the historical wetlands remain and much of the life is gone.
But all is not lost. As Sandra Postel wrote for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative, “the delta is not dead. It is merely dormant, waiting for water to return … the delta is resilient. With the addition of water, life comes bouncing back.” This is where the innovation and excitement comes in.
In November 2012, members of the International Boundary Water Commission from the US and Mexico agreed upon an amendment to the original 1944 treaty. This binational agreement, called Minute 319, solidifies subtle changes to the way the two countries share water from the Colorado River. With so much contention and disagreement surrounding water issues within our own borders, this international agreement is quite a milestone.
One of the major changes outlined by Minute 319 is that Mexico is now able to store its allocation of Colorado River water (or some portion thereof) in Lake Mead. For Mexico, a country with very little water storage capacity, this is very important.
A Natural Defibrillator
Since Minute 319 went into effect, Mexico has been utilizing this new storage arrangement in Lake Mead for one very important purpose: to restore the Colorado River Delta.
At the end of March, the amazing experiment began as this stored water was released, creating a pulse of water large enough to mimic historical spring runoff flows in the Colorado River. The water’s progress has been slow as much of the water is absorbed by the parched landscape, but the Colorado River is once again making its way toward the Gulf of California.
In preparation for the arrival of the pulse flow, local organizations have been planting native vegetation such as cottonwood and willows, along what used to be the banks of the river. The hope is that the water will inundate the floodplain, simulating spring flows and encouraging the growth and seed dispersal of these plants. The hope is that the pulse flow will act like a cardiac defibrillator, shocking the system back into its routine.
These experimental flows began nearly two months ago and, though there was no certainty that the river would reach the sea, it looks as though it will do just that. There is also no guarantee how the delta will respond to this experimental pulse. It is important to note that the amount of water meandering toward the delta as I write this is a far cry from the rushes of water typical of the spring runoff decades ago. Yet it is a grand and worthy experiment all the same.
Even beyond the ecological and experimental significance, Minute 319 represents a great compromise between nations — one that gives us reason for optimism when examining our own water struggles
Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Call the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org for more information.