When the Colorado River reaches the US-Mexico border, it runs into the Morelos Dam. Almost all of the remaining water is diverted into a huge canal and flows to farmlands and towns in Baja California.
South of the dam, the last of the river disappears into the desert.
The river’s sandy bed meanders through fields of wheat, hay, cotton, and vegetables, and bypasses the town of San Luis Rio Colorado, where for years little or no water flowed under its bridge.
Mexico is entitled to receive 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year under a 1944 treaty. But in recent agreements with the United States, Mexico has also agreed to participate in reductions in case of shortage.
Last year, Mexico’s share was reduced by 5%. This year, it will lose 7% of its water.
A group of farmers met recently at the National Water Commission office in Mexicali to hear from government officials and experts on what the cuts mean and to discuss ways to conserve. Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Todd, regional director of the agency, addressed the group.
“The Colorado River Basin is facing an extraordinary drought, which is affecting both the United States and Mexico,” Rodríguez told farmers, explaining the reduced supplies.
He said climate change is narrowing the river at its source, requiring adaptation efforts.
“We must strive to improve water management,” Rodríguez said. “We have to improve and move towards efficiency.”
The workshop covered topics such as measuring flow rates and changing crops to save water.
“We have to start taking action,” said Carlos de la Parra, who heads the nonprofit environmental group Restauremos El Colorado. He told farmers that if the shortage continues to worsen, even greater reductions could occur and that they will have to adapt by becoming more efficient.
“We have the same problem as you, only our culture is the culture of ecosystems,” De la Parra said.
His group is one of six organizations in a coalition called raise the riverwhich focuses on restoring flows in the Colorado River Delta.
More than a century ago, the river delta covered 1.9 million acres of wetlands and forests. Conservationist Aldo Leopold, who crossed the delta by canoe in 1922, described it as “a hundred green lagoons” and said he paddled in waters “of a deep emerald hue”. He described it as an oasis that teemed with fish, birds, beavers, deer and jaguars.
In the years following his visit, the river was dammed and its waters were sent in canals to farms and towns.
For decades, so much water has been diverted that the river rarely meets the sea. Much of the delta has shrunk into stretches of dry river bed, with only small remnants of its surviving wetlands.
Restauremos El Colorado manages one of three habitat restoration areas in the delta, where native trees that were planted six years ago have grown into a forest that drapes the wetland in shade.
Last spring, a jet of water escaped from a channel and poured into the wetland, restoration of a stretch of river where before there were miles of desert sand. The water was released for a second consecutive year under an agreement between the Mexican and US governments and with the support of environmental groups.
After the water pulsated, De la Parra and his colleagues saw the vegetation blooming along the river bed. Biologists have counted about 120 species of birds. And motion-activated wildlife cameras captured footage of beavers swimming and gnawing on tree trunks.
De la Parra and others say the efforts in the delta have been a resounding success, showing that even small amounts of water can be used to revive ecosystems that were largely destroyed decades ago. De la Parra said he thought it was crucial that restoration work continues. But although conservation groups have water rights to maintain certain wetlands, the decline of the river poses challenges for their efforts.
The river crisis also presents a pivotal moment for farms and cities to adapt, De la Parra said.
“I hope we can really understand that the crisis is not something we have to waste,” he said. “We have to use it to propel us into a different model.”
For cities, De la Parra said, that means initiatives such as wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and likely investing in building a new desalination plant in Baja California.
For farmers, he said, there are opportunities to save water by installing efficient irrigation systems and switching from thirsty crops like alfalfa to ones that use less water.
“It’s a water revolution that needs to happen,” said De la Parra.
He said he believes people can improve their livelihoods while using less and “embracing this water revolution”. It is also optimistic that future generations will be able to have a river delta with a functioning ecosystem.
In June, the water that was released brought a stretch of river flowing about 40 miles back into the lower delta. The water finally reached the Gulf of California at high tide.
The flowing river attracted attention. At the side of a road, where the river bed turned into a vast pond, families started coming to relax on weekends and children waded in the water.
Angela Melendez, who works for conservation group Sonoran Institute, said she felt excited and moved to see the river return.
She said it hurts “when our environment is degraded, hurt and exploited”. When the river doesn’t reach the sea, she says, “it’s like one of your veins doesn’t reach your heart.”
Most of the time, the estuary is deprived of a river. The shores near the mouth of the river have long been carved by rising and falling tides, which have left branching treelike patterns imprinted in the sand.
The indigenous Cucapá people who live in the delta have traditionally depended on fishing. The Cucapá still push wooden boats into the estuary to fish for corvina. But there are fewer fish than before.
Hilda Hurtado Valenzuela, a 68-year-old tribal member and president of a fishing cooperative in Cucapá, said when she grew up the river always had water. Willows stood along the banks and her mother twisted a thread into a hook, baiting it with a piece of tortilla.
“There were lots of fish because the river was always bringing water,” Hurtado said. “Not anymore. Now there is nothing.
She said the fresh water flowing into the salt water creates vital habitat for fish to breed in the estuary. Without this flowing water, she says, the fish suffered.
“The Colorado River Delta should have water,” Hurtado said, sitting outside her home in the town of El Indiviso. “Fishing for the Cucapá people is what we live for, how we feed ourselves, but it is also part of our culture. The Colorado River is part of our culture.
She said she fears a time will come when the remaining fish will disappear because there is no flowing water.
“We would like to see a living river,” she said. “We need the water from the Colorado River for the survival of the fish, but also for the survival of the Cucapá people.”
So much could be saved, she said, if even a small amount of water was set aside for the river to become a river again and flow to its end.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.