The Colorado River was once mighty enough to carve the Grand Canyon, but now human use drains it to a trickle that never reaches the sea. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Osvel Hinojosa Huerta is leading efforts to change that.
Osvel Hinojosa Huerta
A raging river powerful enough to sculpt the Grand Canyon
has vanished to a trickle before reaching the sea. If the strangled
Colorado River dies, what will perish with it? A cloud of migrating
birds? A fisherman's livelihood? An ocean nursery waiting to cradle new
life? For more than 15 years, Osvel Hinojosa Huerta has been coaxing
life from mudflats and forging agreements around policy tables; he is
resurrecting Mexico's Colorado River Delta wetlands to rescue
diminishing wildlife and the struggling local economy.
ago this million-acre delta flourished with dense willow, cottonwood,
and mesquite forests, hundreds of green lagoons and marshes, thousands
of heron, osprey, and pelicans—a lush jungle laced with watery channels
formed by the Colorado River's life-giving journey to the Sea of Cortez.
one generation of upstream damming brought the river to a halt.
Hinojosa Huerta explains: "When dams were planned and constructed, all
water rights were allocated to cities, agriculture, and industry. No one
thought about the needs of nature. What's more, those decisions were
made during the 1920s, which was an extremely wet decade. Allocations
were based on an estimated 18 million acre feet of water, when, in fact,
the river yields only 15 million acre feet of water on average."
about 80 percent of those wetland areas have been lost," Hinojosa
Huerta reports. The delta that once teemed with life now stretches
across miles as desert, bare soil, and hypersaline mudflats. Invasive
species choke out the native trees and fish. Migratory bird populations
that depend on wetland oases for wintering or stopover habitats have
seen enormous population declines. Even more troubling, the river no
longer reaches the sea during most of the year. Without the mix of
freshwater and seawater, marine life lacks the crucial estuary haven
needed to safely reproduce and rear young.
"It's also had a
drastic impact on people, especially the Cocopah Indian community,"
Hinojosa Huerta notes. "This indigenous tribe fished and farmed here for
thousands of years. Now they have to travel long distances to reach
greatly depleted waters, fisheries have closed, and the Cocopah struggle
Hinojosa Huerta and other experts predict that
restoring just 1 to 3 percent of the river's flow would allow it to
reconnect with the sea and renew about 200,000 acres of functional delta
wetland. "We've identified key areas where we work to get conservation
easements from landowners, reconnect to existing water sources via
irrigation canals, and reclaim habitats by clearing salt cedar and
planting cottonwood, willows, and mesquite."
Some reclamation work
is accomplished by local community members who participate in a growing
temporary employment program. Other community outreach strategies
include communicating the plight of wetlands to commercial, industrial,
and urban sectors that are disconnected from the delta.
large part to Hinojosa Huerta's efforts, environmental groups such as
Pronatura Noroeste, the Sonoran Institute, and the Environmental Defense
Fund now have a seat at Mexico's policy table. The groups formed the
Water Trust as a crucial legal and financial tool for purchasing water
rights dedicated to the environment.
"Here in the delta, different
organizations and sectors work very collaboratively to find common
ground rather than solving issues through conflict or litigation,"
Hinojosa Huerta observes. "Many government commissions and agencies have
become real stewards of the environment. An agreement signed with the
government of Baja California is sending treated effluent from a
wastewater plant to an important Colorado River tributary. In areas
where the Colorado River divides Mexico and the U.S., we're seeing great
binational cooperation. Sister projects on both sides of the border
cooperate to foster restoration. We've demonstrated that there are
multiple mechanisms for allocating water to the environment, and the
benefits are beginning to show."
Hinojosa Huerta recalls what
happened during the last wet period in the late 1990s. "Since reservoirs
were at full capacity, a huge amount of water was released into the
delta. Even in the face of great degradation, we saw an incredible
natural response as vegetation revitalized and wildlife returned. By
documenting this, we've proved how resilient the delta ecosystem can
be." Since 2002, a serious drought has reversed many of those gains. "It
sounds the alarm that we need to move fast to protect what's left,"
Hinojosa Huerta cautions.
The Cienega de Santa Clara wetland is a
powerful example of what protection can produce. The 40,000 acres of
emerging vegetation, shallow pools, and more than 250 bird species are
maintained by agricultural drainage water from nearby farms. "It's the
largest marsh wetland remaining in the entire Sonoran Desert ecoregion,"
says Hinojosa Huerta. "The fact that it persists provides hope that if
the delta can be restored, so can other places all around the world."
freshwater crisis is global," Hinojosa Huerta stresses. "The cost to
the environment hasn't been considered in the equation when resources
are allocated for development. Biodiversity and wildlife pay the price,
but so do people who are affected by salinization of land, groundwater
depletion, and pollution, and the economic impact on cultures downstream
that need a living river to survive. Rivers provide crucial ecosystem
services by connecting mountains with seas and transporting energy and
nutrients that create vast, productive ocean nurseries."
Colorado River Delta tells a story of catastrophe and possibility. Amid a
dry, desolate, and dying landscape, new cottonwood trees stretch
thirsty roots, drink, and take hold. A parched bird spies a patch of
green and tilts tired wings toward land. Sunbaked sand feels an
irrigation canal's promise and blooms into a pool of blue. Drop by drop,
Osvel Hinojosa Huerta's passion is paying off.