Explorations of the Lower Colorado River #2: the River in Yuma
March 30, 2012 § 14 Comments
Standing there, on the banks near a defunct stream gage, the dissonance between the earthtones of the desert, the hard greys and greens of asphalt and concrete and cars and lawn and monocultured lettuce fields, of industrial development’s footprint on the land and on this withered anemic river, whose water seemed almost still, made me a little dizzy.
But, unbeknownst to me, I was fighting a bacterial blood infection (and then some), so if my impressions seem fevered and lurid, well, it may have just been me – or Proteus OX-19.
But back to the river, and the Quartermaster’s Depot.
This, along with an old jail, are two of the oldest buildings in Yuma, on high ground, looking over the Colorado River. The Quartermaster’s is where mules were kept, hauling goods out of the steamers coming up from the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California).
Is the visual of a steamship coming up this channel playing tricks with your mind? Today the river flows around 500-700 CFS at Yuma. For those of us used to seeing the LA River base flow run between 50-100 CFS at its confluence with the Arroyo Seco, this may sound impressive. But a quick bit of addition of the base flow of tributaries suggests that the Colorado’s base flow may have been 12,000 CFS or more historically. And floods of 100,000-300,000 CFS were not uncommon. As Mark Reiser in Cadillac Desert describes it, the river would also occasionally backwater into the Salton Sink – creating a temporary lake not unlike the one we know today at the Salton Sea. The loss of stream power with the loss of floods has also encouraged sedimentation in the channel – the main channel would have naturally scoured deeper than it does today.
Here’s a cool hydrograph showing the flood regime of the Colorado River pre- and post-everythingthatwasdonetoit. As you all know, it is considered the most highly managed river in the world, overallocated, each drop of water spoken for (and reused).
Unusual snow in the 1980s resulted in high levels of runoff that had to be released from dams. I’ve marked the hydrograph so you can compare the height of those discharges with the historical pre-development flood condition (click on the image to enlarge). You’ll note that the pre-development flooding was still more considerable than even that. Below is remote imaging of the Colorado Delta as a result of that flooding (left) and its more normal dessicated condition (right).
So imagine an even larger delta as its baseline condition (described in Wikipedia as 1,930,000 acres), and then that image on the right as what we’ve done to it.
Lot easier to imagine that steamship now.
I was at the Quartermaster’s for a riparian restoration workshop, hosted by Fred Phillips, a landscape architect I’d met in Flagstaff. I mentioned Fred and his work on the Colorado River in a previous post. Fred had invited me to the workshop, and kindly agreed to give my Cal Poly graduate students a tour of one of his sites, the Yuma East Wetlands.
Fred’s speakers covered topics ranging from the Multi Species Conservation Program (MSCP), the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan for managing habitat for endangered and threatened species along the river corridor; fire and safety management; lessons learned and successes with planting and irrigation strategies; invasive species removal. The workshops were very focused on what works and how to get projects in the ground. The goals were clear. In the comfort of these adobe walls, I was heartened by the sense of the possible, of a hard-won collaboration that began with breakfast meetings at the local cafe, winning over stakeholders one by one.
We then went out to the field, to the Yuma East Wetlands. The wetlands lie off-channel, separated by levees from the Colorado River, but in its former floodplain. Before you can fully appreciate what has been achieved, a brief description of what was, and elsewhere on the river, still is.
The river is maintained as a fairly uniform channel. Along the top of the banks there is dense fringe of vegetation as well as access roads atop levees. Where we walked, there was a 100-200′ wide vegetation zone between the channel and adjacent land uses, mostly ag fields.
Beyond the restoration areas, this dense vegetation is comprised mainly of stands of non-native, invasive tamarisk and phragmites. But these weeds, it turns out, have actually been habitat for someone – the homeless. As in Los Angeles, and probably everywhere else in the United States, homeless populate abandoned, underutilized public lands. As Fred and his crew tunneled through the tamarisk, they met inhabitants who’d camped on the river for extended periods of time – through winters with freezing temperatures, and summers as hot and dry as Iraq. One homeless man had an opuntia farm going in the middle of a thicket which he somewhat reluctantly abandoned to re-create on the opposite bank where no work was planned; another was willing to join forces with the restorationists – becoming a crew member and guardian along the river. I was shocked to learn that these homeless came to this bank along the Colorado River by way of a bus from Los Angeles. Some government party (described vaguely as “the city”) loaded them up and sent them away, the homeless equivalent of deportation, and to such a challenging environment to survive in. Sound familiar, Angelenos? This can’t be legal, right? I despair that there may never be accountability for this act.
The water of the river is itself highly contaminated from decades of agricultural chemical runoff. It’s actually not potable – years ago a MWD staffer told me that when it comes to LA it has to be “cut” with potable water to bring it within drinkability standards. As I write this, I wonder about Clean Water Act enforcement – where is the swimmable, drinkable, and fishable in the management of this river, where again is the accountability?
And the sustainability? The terrain, beyond the river’s banks, is often cracked dry and mottled with salts. Take a naturally somewhat saline landscape and add decades of agricultural chemicals and eliminate cleansing floods and their nutrient-replenishing sediments. Put this into the perspective of disappeared great civillizations, as Dikilitas et al (in Ashraf et al) observe: “the collapse of the Babylonian Empire is considered to be partly the result of failure of irrigated crops resulting from the accumulation of salts.” And with relatively primitive technology, it took them a good few centuries to make that happen. Seeing this, I wonder at the life-span of modern agriculture, the half-life of its destructive footprint, the machinery (political and physical) that keeps it all going, grinding the river and its floodplain deeper and deeper into an ecological stupor.
And what’s an ecological stupor without a little irony? In agricultural Yuma, which receives its share of subsidized Colorado River diversions, the groundwater is so high that it has to be pumped in order farm the land. Speaking of subsidies, on the California side of the river, the going agricultural rate for one acre-foot of Colorado River water is $20 (according to the Pacific Institute, it can be as low as $2). Some of this is being resold to San Diego water users for $258/acre-foot and more – a handsome profit on top of a very pretty initial subsidy for Imperial Valley farmers. This doesn’t include the conveyance fees charged by MWD, or the cost of treating this nonpotable water. By comparison, it can cost $550 – $700/acre-foot to bring Bay Delta water to Southern California urban water users. So the river is coming at bargain barrel prices to alfalfa and lettuce farmers. And no one is inclined to disrupt that flow.
It is in this context that the achievements of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area can be especially savored. Here, acres of dense non-native vegetation (tamarisk and phragmites) had been cleared out along the river’s banks. Cottonwood and mesquite bosques have been planted. Beaver have really taken to the restoration, keeping Fred and his crew innovating on the best ways to protect young trees.
Wetland design incorporates the actual rhythms and flows of the water provided. Remember the pumped-groundwater story? Here the concept of a seasonal wetland is used to convey some pumped groundwater discharge, maximizing its habitat and aesthetic effect. Note the absence of precisely graded 3:1 slopes, concrete, rip rap, gabions, chain link fences, and preachy behavioral signage. It simply is.
Further along, underutilized ag lands adjacent to the levees have been repurposed as wetland cells. These wetlands are a miracle of resourcefulness, putting unallocated agricultural wastewater and pumped groundwater into the wetlands cells. The cells have “stop-log weirs” at the river’s levee that allow the water to back up in the wetlands, allowed to seep through or be fully released. One wetland has a channel that follows the historical alignment of the Gila River, which was redirected elsewhere.
Those rascally beaver are busy occupants in the wetlands, borrowing wood from the stop log weir while alternatively helping to rebuild it. Talk about taking ownership of a project! Beaver dens have been noted in the wetlands.
Spoils dredged from the wetlands were used to create an overlook on the river levee.
Planting the acres and acres of this site involves incredible coordination and solid leadership. At the workshop back in the Quartermaster’s, Fred and one of his staffers, Charlie Morgan, had talked about team mobilization, and about pre-project staking of willows and cottonwood they’d done to produce the stock they’d need. Here you see some of the crew preparing willow bundles. Before installing willow stakes it’s a good idea to soak them. The team found it worked best for them to make use of the abandoned agricultural infrastructure, such as this irrigation ditch, rather than regrade the entire site. This ditch can then be used to prepare willow and also provide periodic flood irrigation, mimicking the natural regime, which they found resulted in more robust riparian trees and shrubs than drip irrigation.
It hurts a little to look at this photo. See, not long after this site, Proteus OX-19 struck me down. It was not fun and I ended up at the Yuma hospital, where the medical establishment scratched their chins and sent me home with a hefty bill and paperwork informing me I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Ummm yeah….
The Yuma East Wetlands is just one of several sites that Fred and Co are restoring. The following day, he took my Cal Poly graduate design studio over to see another site, Sunrise Point Park on the Quechan Indian Reservation.
Here, space for ceremonies, gardening, hanging out, and just taking a nice walk have come together with a wetland cell restoration. We took the walk.
And on that walk, a couple of anonymous Creekfreaks got very distracted by deathly remains.
We They made Charlie get up close to it to reassure everyone it wasn’t human. Because, you know, city people have big, sordid imaginations, and very little actual experience looking at dead things. But then again, at least one of us was in a morbid, and literally infected, frame of mind.
The next day, Josh Link, his business partner Aron Nussbaum, and I hit the highway for the Algodones (which means cotton, by the way) border crossing to meet up with Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta and two of his crew, Juliana and Isobet, of ProNatura Noroeste, working to restore the Colorado River and its delta, against even greater odds than Fred in Yuma. We paused at the All-American Canal, somewhat awestruck by the sight and sounds of the immense diversion, the perfection of its blue water, the peculiarity of ducks bobbing in it. Bye-bye water.
A few yards from here was the border crossing, an acre of shadeless asphalt for parking and a quick jaunt on foot. The ProNatura folks were waiting for us, good-spirited at 8 am on a Saturday. Osvel had driven there this morning from Tijuana to meet us. I’m amazed and humbled by the kind of generosity that implies.
We headed off to Morelos Dam, the hydrologic border crossing, dividing the river between flow and dirt, the US and Mexico. You’ll see – next up is Josh Link’s account. I got to see some of the sights, but my battle with Proteus OX-19 was heating up – landing me in a medical clinic in Rio San Luis Colorado, MX, where for an incredibly decent price, one can get an actual diagnosis.