Lower Colorado tops list of endangered rivers

On April 11, the nonprofit American Rivers released its annual report on the most endangered rivers in the U.S., and topping the list for 2017 was the lower Colorado River. It was deemed the most threatened based on the following criteria: the significance of the river to human and natural communities, the magnitude of the threat to the river and its nearby communities, and a major decision that the public can help influence in the coming year.

The River’s Significance

The Colorado River provides water for more than 35 million people, supports numerous fish and wildlife species — including several threatened and endangered species, supports a variety of aquatic ecosystems — and irrigates more than 6,000 square miles of farmland. It also runs dry before meeting its natural end in the Gulf of California, across the Mexican border.

This region was once a vibrant estuary — and Mexicali was a true river city — but today it is dry as a desert. Years of drought coupled with water scarcity resulting from increased water needs, climate change and other factors, means the river now runs dry 70 miles before it once flowed into the sea.

Without a doubt, these changes in the river have a significant impact on the population in the region, as well as for the larger population which relies on the area’s agricultural output. With the natural habitat all but erased, migrating birds and wildlife have retreated from the Colorado River delta.

The Magnitude of the Threat

The Colorado River is currently over-allocated to the tune of more than a million acre-feet (one acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons) per year – there is physically not as much water in the river as is being taken out. The main storage reservoirs in the system, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are both under 50% of their capacity.

With the lower Colorado providing drinking water for 30 million people and irrigating fields that grow 90 percent of the U.S’s winter vegetables, the potential impact is significant. The water demands of Arizona, Nevada, and California are already outstripping supply, and if populations in these states continue to grow, or climate change’s effects becoming even more acute, the river will reach a breaking point.

This Year’s Decision Point

Among the main criteria used in American River’s study is whether there is a key decision point in the coming year, which could be impacted by public opinion and involvement. For the lower Colorado, it views much of the impact as coming from the new U.S. government administration’s proposed budget cuts to the Department of Agriculture’s regional conservation partnership program and the Department of the Interior’s Water- Smart program.

In addition to budget cuts, 2017 is the year that an important water-sharing agreement between the U.S. and Mexico expires. With relations between the two countries strained due to changes to trade treaties and immigration policies, it could become harder, not easier, to come to an agreement on the successor agreement to the 2012 treaty. This binational agreement between the United States and Mexico includes sharing future drought-related water cuts and includes provisions for the restoration of wetlands in the Colorado River delta that were included in the current bilateral agreement, Minute 319.

American Rivers is a nonprofit organization aimed at river conservation efforts. Located in Washington, D.C., the group has compiled a list of the nation’s “most-endangered rivers” since 2003. While the Colorado River has made the list before, this is the first year the lower Colorado has been named.

In the meantime, Raise the River continues its restoration work in the Colorado River delta region, where our efforts and ongoing scientific monitoring have successfully demonstrated that a relatively small amount of water, particularly when coupled with active restoration, can provide significant benefits to rivers with reduced flows.

What can a river teach us?

Sonoran Institute’s education programs on the banks of two important binational rivers are making huge impacts in the classroom

From the Sonoran Institute Blog

The sun is just rising through their school bus windows, but these fourth graders aren’t going to school. Instead, they are doing something some of them have never done before; they’re taking a trip outside their city of Mexicali, the capital city of the Mexican state of Baja California. The bus windows are clouded by the ever-present desert dust, industrial smog, and smoke from burning trash that chokes their air. They make slow progress through traffic that takes them past block after block of pavement and concrete but by very few parks or other greenery. It is hot and exceedingly dry. The rare waterbodies they see are agricultural drains lined with dirty, standing water and debris. As they leave the city limits, space opens up to agriculture fields but no real natural areas. Many of the open areas along the way that are not being cultivated with food are growing mounds of old tires, garbage, and other illegally dumped trash. Eventually, the bus begins to follow a canal that runs parallel to a mostly dry riverbed. The canal is transporting water diverted from the Colorado River. The mostly dry riverbed is the Colorado River. But the kids don’t know that—yet.

Finally, about an hour outside the heat and hardscape, the bus comes to a stop. The door opens, and—like magic—the children step straight into a thick, shady forest. With animals. And bugs. And water.

“They’re actually a little scared,” says Gabriela González-Olimón, environmental education coordinator for our Colorado River Delta program. “They feel like they’re in a jungle. Many have never been in a place like this. Even some of the teachers can’t believe this really exists near Mexicali.”

The students have arrived at our Laguna Grande Restoration Area in the Mexicali Valley. Sonoran Institute-led efforts beginning in 2007 to plant and nurture native cottonwood, mesquite, and willow trees have transformed this area into the largest (nearly five river miles) and most-dense stand of native riparian habitat along the Colorado River in Mexico. It is one of the few green open spaces in the region, and one of the only places to see flowing water in the Mexican stretch of the Colorado River.

Bringing students to the site is one component of our expanding focus on educating and engaging young people in environmental conservation. In addition to programs in the Colorado River Delta, we also sponsor educational programs about the Santa Cruz River in Arizona.

Awakening a Deep Cultural Memory

“Our belief is you can’t care about what you don’t know,” says González-Olimón. “So many children in Mexicali don’t have the opportunity to get out of the city and experience nature. Most of them don’t know where their water comes from. Our program allows them to see first-hand a river they thought was long gone. They can see for themselves all the life that water in the river makes possible. For our work to have long-term success, we have to connect the new generation to the river, as we will need them to be champions for this work.”

Guides take groups ranging from kindergarten through university students into the forest. For nearly three hours, they follow bobcat and coyote tracks, identify bugs and plants, spot migratory birds, and see beavers and other wildlife they would otherwise never encounter. Since 2015, over 4,000 people have visited the site, including more than 30 school groups (about 1,200 students) in 2016, during the first year of our fieldtrip program. Numbers are expected to keep increasing as word of the program and its value spreads. “Living the experience is the most effective way for my students to learn about ecosystem problems and, specifically, the river,” says Edna, a high school teacher visiting with her class from Mexicali. “The Sonoran Institute’s programs also help me get trained and updated in subjects related to the environment we live in.”

Outside of the school programs, our Family Saturday programs provide an opportunity for people of all ages to visit the restoration site for a free guided tour, birdwatching, kayaking, and a chance to see the river that most thought had disappeared with their grandparents’ generation.

“The reactions are incredible,” says Dzoara Rubio, our environmental education assistant. “For the older people, it’s mostly tears when they see the river and the forest—things they’ve heard stories about from their parents and grandparents and are now able to experience with their own families. Seeing the river alive again generates very powerful emotions in the people of Mexicali. It’s waking up memories that connect them with past generations, with their heritage. They instantly care about the river because it’s part of them. So, in addition to our successful ecological restoration, this cultural identity is another dimension of what the Sonoran Institute is rescuing in the Delta.”

Continue reading, here


Water leasing is being used as a way to leverage water for environmental purposes. Our coalition partners Osvel Hinojosa of Pronatura Noroeste, The Nature Conservancy, Sonoran Institute and the Colorado River Delta Water Trust are featured in this in-depth article on this strategy, and their creative use of water leasing to bring water and life back to the #ColoradoRiverDelta.

Read the full story, at Ecosystems Marketplace


It’s a wrap! We’ve just enjoyed two packed days of planning strategies to continue our work to restore water and life in the #ColoradoRiverDelta. After listening to the progress updates, “tales from the field”, ideas, back-stories and passionate presentations, it is clear that we have an amazing coalition of partners! Here’s to Sonoran Institute, Pronatura Noroeste, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Save the Colorado River Delta, The Redford Center — and especially our generous supporters and funders. Here’s to an exciting 2017 in support of the Colorado River Delta and surrounding communities!