Earthworks on the Colorado River

“You know how they say, ‘You can’t love what you don’t know?’ Well, this is why we need to reach out to people who don’t know what the deal with the river is. Reaching out with the Local Natives is a fantastic way into thousands of people’s hearts,” says Gaby Gonzalez, Environmental Education Coordinator at the Sonoran Institute. She’s part of the team that recently spent a long day together filming the newest episode of Earthworks from VICE Impact.

Local Natives and production crew preparing to film an acoustic set in the Colorado River Delta.

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.

Gaby González describes the ecology of the Colorado River for Local Natives band members.

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.”

L to R: Nick Carter, VICE Impact; Karen Schlatter, Gaby González, Edith Santiago

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.

As originally appeared on the Sonoran Institute Blog, June 16, 2017; by Corinne Matesich, Marketing Communications Coordinator/Sonoran Institute


Spring & Early Summer in the Delta

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.

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