Explorations of the Lower Colorado River #3: The River in Mexico

May 8, 2012 § 12 Comments

An aerial of the Colorado River Delta Region taken during the drought of 1990. The Gulf of California is located in the bottom right, the Salton Sea in the top left. The bright green patchwork areas in the middle of the image are the Mexicali and Imperial Valleys. Between the tapestry of fields and the Sonoran Desert to the east, the dark green spot near the middle of the image is La Cienega de Santa Clara, the last remaining wetland of the Delta Region. (Image Credit: Alejandro Hinojosa)

Upon crossing the border threshold on foot at Los Algodones, we were met by the smiling faces of Osvel, Juliana and Isobet, the dedicated staff of Pronatura Noroeste. Our guides would prove to be among the most generous, hospitable people we have encountered in our travels. While absorbing the unfolding story of a lost river waiting to be found once again, we were simultaneously pulled headfirst into the ramifications of what we heard. Revelatory moments are scarce in an age of excessive information and we took care in absorbing a dose of pure, unadulterated perspective. At the end of the day, every blade of turf, every kidney-shaped swimming pool, every rinsed-off sidewalk, every broken sprinkler head, every drop of discarded greywater would forever hold new significance…

The former Colorado River floodplain as seen from above the southern gates of Morelos Dam near Los Algodones, Baja.


One mile south of the California border, tellingly situated between the towns of Algodones (cotton) and Alamo (cottonwood), the Colorado River is picked clean, strong-armed into choosing a path toward agricultural lands to the west. The Morelos Dam is a deliberate, abrupt, L shaped structure. It is an honest monument in that its morphology makes no attempt to hide its ultimate intention: to manage and allocate the final 11% of flow trickling into Mexico. On the day we walk across the dam, as on most days throughout the year, the southern gates leading to the historic Colorado River floodplain are closed. Like sunlight through a penitentiary window, a determined amount of seepage squeezes its way past the gates creating an incongruous pond at the base of the dam. In sharp contrast, the western gates are frozen in a perpetual yawn through which the remaining River flows. A vast network of canals originates here, feeding the productive fields and municipalities of the Mexicali Valley beyond. Settlement in its current form would not be possible in the area without the dam and its associated diversions. Very little survives beyond the reach of a river in a landscape that is lucky to receive three inches of precipitation in a year. Such a reality should speak to the sanctity of the mighty Colorado. Yet, along a majority of its length, it has been subjected to rampant exploitation, a victim of ever-expanding development justified primarily because the River exists. There it is, take it.

The remaining 11% of the Colorado River is diverted due west toward the Mexicali Valley via a complex network of irrigation canals.


Rumbling down a gravelly washboard road in a sturdy older model Chevy Suburban, Osvel points out numerous species of birds with an eagle eye: American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Great Blue Heron, Common Grackle… proof that the area is a significant haven for life even in its currently amputated state. Considering how arid the region is, this came as quite a shock and speaks to the true power of the River. We pull into a small farm. The owner, an older gentleman with a firm handshake and friendly guard dogs, offered his land up for an unprecedented purpose. According to Osvel, the nursery on this site has no equal in this region of Mexico (or any other for that matter). Hundreds of Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) seedlings are set in rows beneath shade cloth. We walk into a greenhouse where cuttings of Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and Goodding’s Willow (Salix goodingii) are grouped by age. Osvel shares information freely, discussing the nuances of soaking willow and cottonwood cuttings in the same water because the willow contains a natural rooting hormone. We are humbled by the simple brilliance of the operation and its far-reaching implications.

A former farm has been transformed into a production nursery for restoration work in the Delta Region. Osvel Hinojosa Huerta and Aron Nussbaum stand between rows of Goodding’s Willow and Fremont Cottonwood.


Farther down a featureless rural road, we make another stop. Looking out on a barren plain that was once an oxbow of the Colorado River, Osvel explains the proposed restoration project. The recipe seems practical enough: add water, plant seedlings and cuttings and nurture them until they are established. The difficult part is the water. Until very recently, restoration advocates were unable to acquire water rights for environmental purposes. The current goal is to secure one percent of the River’s original flow for restoration of the Delta. It is a small amount, but it represents a critical step moving forward. According to the Sonoran Institute website:

In 2008, the Sonoran Institute, Pronatura Noroeste, and the Environmental Defense Fund partnered to create and manage the Colorado River Delta Water Trust, a mechanism by which water can be secured and dedicated in perpetuity to the Delta. The Colorado River Delta Water Trust is Mexico’s first water trust dedicated to acquiring and leasing water for environmental purposes. This Water Trust will play a key role in helping restore the Colorado River Delta, a globally significant environmental resource that is in the process of being brought back to life by a dynamic partnership involving NGOs, scientists, community leaders, and government officials from the United States and Mexico.

Looking to the right, we see a field of crops growing in what was once a side channel of the River, undoubtedly a sign of farmers taking advantage of the natural topography for its rich soils and flood irrigation potential. The unlikely bright green canal seems incredibly out of place. We break for lunch and head back to San Luis Rio Colorado to pick up Jessica who has spent the morning cooped up in a local clinic. We meet at the Pronatura Noroeste office where we review regional maps to get our bearings. I stare into a fish tank where three endangered Desert Pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius) dart back and forth in front of an adhesive underwater scene.

This former oxbow of the Colorado River is slated for restoration in the near future.


We drive along an irrigation canal. The concrete lined channel looks quite new and piles of broken concrete rubble are strewn along the side of the road. The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Mexicali on April 4, 2010 took a toll on local irrigation infrastructure. After walking down the banks of a levee, we enter a restored mesquite woodland. It is an early restoration project installed by Pronatura Noroeste and local community members. A stream of remnant irrigation water in the distance is flanked by the aptly named Common Reed (Phragmites australis). It chokes the banks save for a small opening where a viewing platform has been artfully constructed using wood palettes. Simple yet elegant rustic benches have been constructed with dried wood collected on site. Salty soils caused initial plantings of willow and cottonwood to fail, but the Honey Mesquite is thriving and native Arrowweed (Pluchea sericea) has colonized an adjacent clearing.

A dock partially constructed with used wooden palettes serves as a viewing platform for one of Pronatura’s first restoration projects.

A simple bench made of wood collected on site


The Suburban lunges down the side of a levee road into a monoculture stand of Fremont Cottonwood. Unlike the last project we visited, this restoration site bears the mark of a regulatory hand. To receive agency funding, trees had to be planted in specific densities across a geometric grid of rills and mounds, not unlike the plowed fields of adjacent farms. Jessica has observed this same technique applied to restoration projects on Bureau of Reclamation land. By this Cartesian method of restoration by numbers, it is unclear whether the cottonwood is a crop or the foundation of a future habitat. It seems to be a counter-intuitive strategy for ecosystem cultivation, but I am no restoration ecologist. Across the road, arrowweed thrives and willows colonize the edge of a moist drainage. Walking back to our respective vehicles, Isobet realizes she has dropped her keys. Luckily, she finds them in the middle of the road a few hundred yards back instead of having to scour the repetitive, indistinguishable rows of the cottonwood forest.

Tight rows of Cottonwood trees cover the second restoration site.

Osvel and Jessica walk along a dirt road that bisects the rows of Cottonwoods.


The road to La Cienega de Santa Clara is stark if not poetic. Driving through what was once a broad, seasonal wetland of the greater Colorado River Delta to reach a perpetual refuge created by the chance discharge of agricultural runoff from Arizona is a disorienting and complicated journey. The miles before the oasis are dry, and eerily so. The former floodplain is dramatically empty. I ask Osvel if we have time to stop the car for a moment. Stepping off the road, the sole of my shoe penetrates a bizarre crust. Like a deflated soufflé, the soil just below the crunchy surface is light and spongy. If I were to close my eyes, I might be fooled into thinking I am standing in snow, until a warm breeze presents itself. I am tempted to make my first soil angel. I kneel down instead. The surface is uniformly stamped with the impressions of rain, a forlorn homage to a blessed storm occurring sometime ago in the ambiguous past. It is a vast landscape devoid of plant life and perceptible topography, a dry sponge waiting beneath a forgotten spigot.

A former floodplain lays barren in the absence of water. This landscape provides few clues about the sprawling wetland located just to the east.

The approach is mirage-like, a thin green line sandwiched between parched soil and expansive sky. The Gran Desierto de Altar, a sub-region of the vast Sonoran Desert and the only active erg dune system in North America, lies just fifteen miles ahead. Our attention is focused on the foreground. We pass a series of white domed structures with earthen brick walls flanked by open timber ramadas with tightly thatched roofs. We park the truck and I climb the ladder of an observation tower. A verdant carpet, primarily woven with Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis), is broken only infrequently by patches of open water. The grassy surface undulates in the wind. A wooden pier reaches into the wetland. A group of teenagers awkwardly paddle a boat fifty yards from shore, struggling to steer clear of the dense cattails, laughing loudly. Two men sitting on buckets sing while playing guitar on the dock. With about an hour of sunlight left, I notice Osvel and Juliana walking toward the Suburban. I follow, expecting to begin our drive back to San Luis Rio Colorado. Instead, I am introduced to another Pronatura staff member and soon realize that our day is not yet over.

White domed structures made of earthen bricks and ramadas with thatched roofs greet visitor to La Cienega de Santa Clara.

La Cienega de Santa Clara as viewed from the observation tower.

The electric trolling motor propels us along at a gentle pace. After passing a pair of gregarious bass fisherman, we approach a small gap in the wall of cattails. An informative sign explains the significance of the area. La Cienega de Santa Clara is the largest remaining wetland of the Colorado River Delta. It is an important stop along the Pacific Flyway as evidenced by the 261 bird species recorded on site. In particular, the area is home to 75% of the total population of the endangered Yuma Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris yumaensis). Yet this vital, regionally critical natural resource is in peril. Increased water demand and drought could trigger significant pressure to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant. Saline agricultural return flows from the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District would be treated for delivery to fields rather than being directed into La Cienega de Santa Clara, eventually causing a collapse of the refuge.

One of many narrow passages between the vast cattail islands of La Cienega de Santa Clara.

Winding through narrow passages between the nodding cattails, the sounds of life emanate from all directions. Osvel identifies species with incredible ease, sometimes by sound alone, a handy skill given that the Yuma Clapper Rail is shy and rarely shows its face. There are surprises around every corner: American Coot, Double-crested Cormorant, Red-winged Blackbird, Green-winged Teal, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, White-faced Ibis. Endangered Desert Pupfish swim below us. A sandbar located near the inflow of agricultural runoff is a hub of activity and periodic flocks disperse as we approach. Life reminds us of its incredible resilience here, its latent energy and its profound beauty. This place provides proof that the universal catalyst is water.

Irrigation runoff enters La Cienega just north of this sandbar. The flush of nutrients attracts a wide variety of birds including this flock of White-faced Ibis.

A Northern Harrier soars above the wetlands at dusk.

The sky is ablaze as we head toward shore, the glassy water equally fiery in reflection. Fish begin to jump, big ones, often completely out of the water, snapping up unfortunate flying invertebrates at will in the dusky light. I am left wondering who in their right mind would willfully eliminate such a place in the blasphemous name of progress. Perhaps it is because people do not value that which they have not seen? My gut tells me it is not that simple. After anchoring the boat, we walk ashore and stand for a moment between the white domes facing the setting sun, away from the Cienega. Were a second sun to grace the orange-pink sky, we might be standing on a moisture farm on Tatooine, pondering our place in the struggle against the Empire. We drive north to San Luis Rio Colorado and, before we make our way back into California, we all stop for dinner at Tacos El Chipilon to inhale some of the tastiest tacos I have ever eaten… a mound of perfectly charred carne asada, mild white cheese melted over a large green chile wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla… a profound meal for a profound day.

A spectacular sunset illuminates the waters of La Cienega de Santa Clara.


Part I:  Motivation and the Vaquita Marina

Part II:  The River in Yuma


§ 12 Responses to Explorations of the Lower Colorado River #3: The River in Mexico

  • I love this story. Not sure if I’ve commented from before, since I have added your site on my blogs ‘Followed’ list.

    Very glad to see them trying to restore Mesquite Bosques back along the river banks. Sometime down the road I’m wanting to do a piece on Mesquite Habitat Restoration and a unique way of propagating Mesquite into very long growing tube containers as opposed to the long time conventional methods still employed using 1 gallon pots.

    Anyone who has actually gotten off Interstate 8 and actually driven around along the backroads and trails around the massive floodplain and has seen first hand the miles upon miles of endless worthless invasive Tamarisk groves and the lifelessness which exists under these non-native canopies will applaud the efforts of those trying to change things back to what it once was.

    I remember reading the historical accounts about what the actual delta of the colorado once was before Tamarisk invasion and obsessive dam contruction upriver and how the delta was this massive Sub-Tropical Oasis where Cottonwoods, Sycamores and various forms of Willows and other desert riparian wash trees once flourished along with such exotic animals as Jaguar which are no longer even found in Southern Arizona anymore if I’m correct.

    When I was last living in So-Cal I had also noticed Tamarisk invasions of countless coastal riparian areas and in some cases complete take overs. I don’t blame the Tamarisk. They simply do what they do. Humans are the ones at fault. There are no policies or rules against Industrial Agriculture being prevented from establishing more and more Tamarisk Windbreaks for their industrially grown crops. Seriorly they are still doing this. There are actually more perminent native sollutions which could replace all those windbreaks with a more stable and viable sollution. Most people also don’t realize that in many areas these Tamarisk windbreaks are watered thoroughly and regularly or they wouldn’t keep that massive windbreak appearance. I wouldn’t doubt that these trees suck up more water than the crops they are supposed to be protecting use. The Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs told me this back in the early 1980s when I first visited them.

    There are several miles long stretches of Tamarisk Windbreaks going from Cabazon/Windy Point all the way to Indio/Coachella along the Interstate 10 and on both sides of the Southern Pacfic railroad right-of-ways. Not many people realize that if these trees weren’t regularly watered (water from the canal from Colorado via Parker Dam) that they would loose much health vigor and density which are necessary for effective windbreaking. I’ve actually climbed up into some of these windbreaks and seen several of the large 2-3 inch in diameter pipes just pouring out the water for these trees. This may even make a good future article or research point for you on your blog.

    Another reason I was told that so much water is needed is that the type of structure of the blowing sand in that region has so many sharp edges in it, that it sand blasts and cuts damage into the Tamarisk trees, but if watered continually they heal quicker and continually. It would surely be interesting to know exactly how much acre foot of water is wasted on these massive extensive windbreaks.

    Anyway, sorry for the rant here, but once again really enjoyed your post here and hope for possitive results coming of the habitat conservation projects.


  • Matt Horns says:

    Rants are good if they contain the truth.

    Every time I visit my brother in Cathedral City I cringe at the tamarask windbreaks all over the valley that displace native vegetation and evapo-transpirate tons of water from local aquifers every second of every day.

    When I was a kid in 1968 my famiily was a guest of honor at one of my doctor Dad’s medical patients (who’s life was saved by my Dad) at his trailer in a “resort” on the lower Colorado River a few miles upstream of the Mexican border. The river there stank and was full of horrible bacterial diseases. We were told to always wear shoes in the river because if we got a cut on our foot it will become infected by a dreaded disease. We water-skied in the forty-foot-wide channel by day, and smelled the stench from the water by night.

    Malibu Lagoon of today is Colorado River Lagoon of 45 years ago. It’s shameful that the weathiest city in California refuses to replace or upgrade dysfuntional septice systems that spew sewage into Surfrider Beach that continually sickens and even kills Malibu surfers.

    • You know Matt. It’s ironic, but our southwestern Mesquite that we cherish so much is an invasive terrible weed tree in Africa, India/Pakistan and Australia. It blows me away sometimes what mankind has actually done to this planet’s ecological balances.

      BTW, have you ever cut and burned Tamarisk tree wood ? It smells exactly the same as the the stench from the Salton Sea. I cut up some of the wood once from a Palm Desert Tamarisk that was nowhere near that sea and took it up into the mountains where I lived in Anza. We heated our home with a wood burning stove. Incredibly it had the same foul scent. Interestingly, the ash from Tamarisk is exactly like sand, it’s not at all fluffy and light like other wood ashes.

      One has to wonder how much that tree may be the cause of that sea’s plight. Though I don’t excuse the contamination by Farmers and the chemical companies that service them.

      • Matt Horns says:

        Douglas-fir, a native to, and one of North America’s most valuable timber species in our Pacific Northwest, is a huge problem as an invasive in New Zealand.

  • Joe Linton says:

    Thanks, Joshua, for a beautifully-written evocative piece… both hopeful and a little scary.

  • I’m actually a bit curious here. Why did they plant the cottonwoods in such Industrial Forest like planation layouts ? Sweden plants the same way with Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) for which no wildlife ever live under. Unless of course they are growth promoting a forced shaping of them into long tall pole-like examples to be transplanted elsewhere as necessary.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      We are all wondering this – my students observed a similar technique on Bureau of Reclamation sites. One thing this dense planting does, however, is prevent the invasives from getting a foothold.

      It does remind me of old school forestry techniques, which I thought had since been replaced by a more “plant community” with succession and age classes approach.

      • You know, now that I think about it, they probably did it as a condensed measure as it would replicate what happens in nature. Where ever I have observed heavey periods of precipitation or seasons of great rainfall of any rainy season in So-Cal, all flood plains which will usually run with water for almost that whole year will sprout riparian seedlings enmass and virtually cover like a blanket an entire area.

        You are also correct about blocking out seedlings of invasive. In this case the Tamarisk which actually doesn’t do well under a shaded canopy. they need full sun. So that’s a plus to know. Another plus is understanding that Tamarisk seed is only viable up to 15 to 30 days. After that it degrades, which is a good thing. Still, look how successful it’s been. Wouldn’t have happened though without irresponsible land management of humans.

        I just wish they had been more creative in their choice of orchard/plantation placement and not so monoculture of just Cottonwoods. Mixing various Willows or maybe an Arizona Sycamore or two here and there. I absolutely hate the way Sweden conducts their Industrial Forestry. Poland and Germany are no different. Very little if any Old Growth anywhere. The only examples of old growth are in their city parks.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        I was so impressed by what I saw in Mexico – and the magnitude of challenge that they are faced with, that I wouldn’t want my comments about this approach to be construed as criticism. These guys are doing amazing work with limited resources – and were so kind and generous and good-natured. I think Sycamores show up a little higher up in the floodplain (cross-sectionally speaking), and I don’t know if they’d have occurred this far down in the watershed. I’m sure there’s a reason why the focus was on cottonwoods, but we didn’t ask. Or, I don’t remember.

  • The reason I mentioned Sycamores, and I’ll have to check out some more references, they could well have been part of that system and they do well in that extreme heat of the Colorado deserts. The City of Brawley has some of the largeset Sycamores I’ve seen brought over by early founding fathers of that town. I know, my friend’s grandfather brought over several.

    More importantly, before the daming of all the Salt, Gila and Verde rivers, the flow and riparian woodland use to run all the way through western Arizona through Welton to just above Yuma. So the possibility exists of there being at least a few Arizona Sycamores (Plantanus arizonica) growing in the system, but they would definitely need more water than the system offers presently. The heat would definitely not be a problem as they can take a lot.

    One can only imagine what the natural world was like back then, even with the old ancient Lake Cahuilla with all of it’s fish traps up around La Qunita and Indio way.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Very interesting. I’d love to see a historical ecology project for the Lower Colorado River.

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