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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.
A century 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.
Just 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."
"Today 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 to survive."
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.
Due in 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."
"The 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."
The 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.