We salute the Walton Family Foundation for their commitment to supporting the Colorado River! The Foundation recently announced grants to several organizations totaling $20M over the next 2 years to be used toward finding solutions to the Colorado River’s diminishing water supply, supporting the renewal of Minute 319, and restoring the region’s environment. The Walton Family Foundation supports the work of Raise the River, and for that, we are enormously grateful. Read more, here: https://news.azpm.org/p/news-articles/2017/6/28/113151-foundation-to-put-20-million-into-restoring-colorado-river/
The Nature Conservancy scientists around the world work within river systems to help people and nature thrive together. This highlights the work of our Raise the River coalition partner with the Colorado River, featuring Taylor Hawes, director of TNC’s Colorado River program, and the Walton Family Foundation. Read (and share!) the full story, here: https://www.nature.org/magazine/archives/saving-great-rivers.xml
The episode connects the Sonoran Institute’s work in the Colorado River Delta with the L.A.-based band, Local Natives. It was shot on location in the Delta region, an expansive, sandy landscape near Mexicali, Mexico. Between a private acoustic set in the estuary and some incredible tacos the sixteen-hour shift was exceptional. Gaby says, “My favorite part of the day was getting to hang out and explore the river with the band. It was way more intense than a regular media tour. First, because this was a large group, production, sound, etc.—the whole package—while we usually host a couple reporters at a time. I loved seeing how they all worked together.”
VICE Impact describes Earthworks as “Basically a Planet Earth with musicians. In each episode a musician, band, rapper, or R&B star travels to an amazing ecological location anywhere in the world to learn more about its needs, the dangers it faces and how we can help save it. Along the way, the musicians play beautiful music connecting with the natural setting, sometimes even using the sound nature provides them.” Bringing environmental awareness to a young audience is important to the show’s creators because “Now, more than ever, it’s up to us, as young people, to take on this mantle of conservation, preservation, and action to show people these beautiful, life-giving places that will be lost to us if we don’t do something about it. The Colorado River doesn’t flow to the ocean anymore.”
“A lot of people think the river ends at the US-Mexico border, so it’s usually very surprising to find out there’s a river down here too and that there’s super committed people working to restore it and to better the communities around it.” said Gaby Gonzáles, who lives this work every day. The day on set took on new challenges with things like lighting, sound, working out logistics and a fair amount of time spent having to wait. The director even lost a shoe in the mud, but “he wasn’t fazed one bit,” according to Gaby. Overall, the time was spent immersed in the Delta, making sure the importance of the river was clear.
Karen Schlatter, Adaptive Management Specialist at the Sonoran Institute also helped orient the band and production team to the river. She’s adept at showing those who aren’t familiar with all the issues surrounding the Colorado River the history and recent work in the Delta. She described to the band members how they’re directly connected by living in Los Angeles, a city that relies on the Colorado River for its drinking water supply. Before the shoot, they were not entirely aware of the huge impacts of human water use on the environment. Karen enjoyed the chance to show them the positive side of “what is possible through restoration and community involvement.” She made sure to highlight “the fact that restoration of the Delta is a bi-national undertaking that involves collaboration on all levels, from water users in LA to US and Mexican governments to local communities.”
Gaby and Karen showed Local Natives and the Earthworks team how resilient the Delta is. Despite decades of degradation and desiccation of habitat, there are many areas that still support native plant and animal species, including several endangered and endemic species.
The audience for Earthworks is also resilient. It’s reassuring to hear VICE Impact relate that their younger audience has an environmental awareness, and knows that their generation is “open, conscious, perceptive, empathetic and primed to take this fight on and shift the tide of consciousness towards creating a real future for Mother Nature.” It’s the kind of mindset that makes for good collaboration. When asked why they saw the Sonoran Institute as the right organization to work with on this project, VICE Impact’s director of advocacy, Nick Carter, professed “The Sonoran Institute is doing incredible work to bring life back to the source that gives life to so many of us, the Colorado River. They are committed to one of the most noble causes anyone could commit themselves to and it was an honor for the band and the team to work with them.”
Plus, says Gaby, “kayaking in the river and exploring the riparian forest along it. I loved watching the band play! The scenery was super special; I wonder if they’d ever played in a place like this before.” What about another favorite moment? “Sharing tacos with the band…not your usual fan moment,” chose Gaby. “Those tacos were freaking amazing,” according to Karen.
Spring and early summer are exciting times in the delta, not only in terms of increasing the restoration activities but also in terms of the natural cycles in the delta.
Why is our replanting project so vital?
The absence of water in the Colorado River Delta has put the natural cycles of planting and growth at a disadvantage. During times when water was a constant presence, cottonwoods and willows would produce and disperse their seeds along the banks of the Colorado River Delta region beginning in March and extending through June. This coincides with the historic annual spring flooding events of the Colorado River. The seeds scatter through the air and flow along the streams, trying to reach open and wet spaces along the banks of the river. Their ability to germinate and take root depends upon the ideal conditions of salinity and humidity of the soil, together with a consistent level of shallow groundwater in order to sustain the survival of the trees through the hot summer months.
Migrating Bird Cycles in the Delta
The Colorado River Delta is a major stopover site for the migration of both land and water birds. Early in spring, the birds that spend the winter in the delta begin to depart to their breeding grounds in the northern part of the continent. Later in April and May, the delta receives an influx of millions of birds that spend the winter in Southern Mexico and Central America during their northern migration back up into the U.S. and Canada to breed.
Species of Migrating Birds in the Delta
Among the migrating birds commonly found in the Colorado River Delta, each spring are 26 species of waterfowl, 32 species of shorebirds and 68 species of land birds. Good habitat quality of these Delta-region stopover sites has been linked to an improved survival and breeding success of these bird species, and overall with their conservation at a continental scale. This is an important part of the restoration goals for the Colorado River Delta. #RaisetheRiver
Seasons of the Marsh Birds
The Colorado River Delta is home to several protected marsh birds, including the Yuma Clapper Rail, the California Black Rail and the Virginia Rail. Their breeding season peaks between March and May, when these birds vocalize frequently to attract a mate and defend territories. By June, most of the eggs have hatched, and the chicks follow their parents through the marsh, looking for food and avoiding predators.
Marsh Birds of the Delta: The Yuma Clapper Rails
In general, marsh birds are very shy, and are rarely seen, choosing to stay in the cover of the cattails and other vegetation of the Colorado River Delta. The on-the-ground bi-national scientists of the #RaiseTheRiver coalition monitor their populations, counting the birds by their calls. Through these monitoring efforts, we have learned that the Ciénega de Santa Clara in the Delta is home to approximately 75% of the total population of Yuma Clapper Rails.
Riparian Birds in the Delta
The forests of cottonwoods and willows in the Colorado River Delta provide an optimal breeding habitat for over 30 species of riparian nesting birds. Most of these species, including the Blue Grosbeak, Western Kingbirds and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, migrate south during winter and arrive in the Delta between April and June. Other species are year-round residents, such as the Abert’s Towhee and the Crissal Thrasher.
While each season has its activities and events, the month of May is a truly spectacular time to see how restoration is bringing back life to the Colorado River Delta.
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.