Explorations of the Lower Colorado River #3: The River in Mexico
May 8, 2012 § 12 Comments
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…
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.
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.
THE BARREN MEANDER
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.
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.
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.
LA CIENEGA DE SANTA CLARA
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.