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Tomas searches the sand for the remains of dead crabs. When he finds one, he holds it up for a closer look. It is five in the morning and the sun is already rising in the delta of the Colorado River. “See this?” he asks. Many crabs die from lack of water, he explains. The estuary has been punished by the lack of fresh water that caused the death or departure of thousands of species. The most visible proof of this is the remains of dead crabs lying in the middle of what is now a desert. But Tomas Rivas, a 47-year-old marine biologist, is part of an alliance of non-governmental organizations that have been working for a decade to recover the river’s ecosystems that have been disappearing since the flow of water was cut off. In recent years they have managed to get the native species to begin to return little by little. “We have noticed the return of the clam and the freshwater snail,” he says.
What happened to Tomas and his companions seems like a fight against the current every day. Just hours before, they were celebrating a milestone: the Colorado River bed had come to join the waters of the Gulf of California. A century ago, the river flowed normally from its source in the American Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez. But since Mexico diverted the river into a canal system in the 1940s, the encounter between fresh and salt water hardly happens anymore, because the river has been reduced to 3% of what it was. Those days, after a lot of work, they managed to make a timid river finally flow into the delta. Between hugs and happy faces, the team explains how difficult it is for that to happen. “It was just a trickle of water,” says Rivas, a member of the Sonoran Institute organization.
The problem they face is drought in all its faces. The governments of the United States and Mexico, which share three water basins —Rio Bravo, Tijuana, and Colorado—, signed a treaty with the latter in the 1940s to guarantee the annual delivery of water to its neighbor to the south. But due to the changing conditions that the Colorado River has gone through, the agreement has been updated with different acts signed by the two countries. One of the latest, the 323, of 2017, establishes that there is a portion of the water that has to be used for the environment.
The area through which the Colorado River historically crossed in Mexico is desert. The Government of Miguel Aleman inaugurated the Morelos Dam on the border in 1950, the first diverter in the country —which diverted the water from the river to a system of canals—, designed to enter the largest amount of water that reached the State of Baja California and thus avoid losing bulk of this liquid. This implied that the natural channel disappeared, and as a consequence, green spaces that were around its entire route died.
In Act 323, both governments and a group of NGOs agree to contribute 86 million cubic meters of water in equal parts in order to recover the ecosystems of Colorado, improve the conditions of the estuary, and recharge the aquifer. In addition, the three signatories each promise to contribute three million dollars for scientific research and monitoring; and another three million dollars more for restoration of sites, such as reforestation with native tree species or recovery of habitats. By the end of 2022, the parties had already complied with half of what was established.
Those commitments have begun to show their shape years later. And the positive impact of those promises made in 2017 have begun to be reflected in projects such as the Save the Colorado River Alliance. The group brings together six organizations, three Mexican and three American, which operate in the seven US states through which its channel crosses and in the Mexican state of Baja California. On the southern side of the border, a dozen sites have been successfully restored.
Ecosystems regenerate with water
The success has been such that it has caused the return of animals that were no longer seen. In those days, NGO workers enthusiastically photographed a family of beavers that had arrived at their restoration site. The reforestation in that place was designed by the organizations thinking about climate change and the possibility that in the future there will be no water to distribute. With that idea in mind, the trees that were planted, explained one of the engineers to America Futura, had a drip irrigation system that fed the flora with very little water.
The goal is to use water wisely, punish trees so they are able to develop more roots, and seek water from the groundwater table. The teams want to prepare the species to face lack of water in the future, without going extinct along the way. “They have been working on this in the United States for a long time, but in Mexico we are more passive,” explains Enrique Guillen Moran, head of irrigation for the NGO alliance.
The teams have restored part of the forests that originally inhabited the place. “At the beginning of the 20th century, when the flows of the Colorado in Mexico began to be interrupted and the normal channel was channeled to be used for agriculture, all the poplar and willow forests died, all the native vegetation died,” says Eduardo Blanquez, Restoration Coordinator for the organization Let’s Restore Colorado.
Another site is Miguel Aleman, on the border with the United States. On the other side of the wall you can see a restored site a few meters away. On the Mexican side, they raised one to create a bird corridor. “This is a very important migratory corridor for birds, so spaces had to be created for them,” says oceanographer Gabriela Caloca, coordinator of water and wetlands at the organization ProNatura Noroeste. That’s why they built a 170-hectare forest from scratch. “Miguel Aleman is that, to demonstrate that it is possible to restore a site that was thought to be completely dead, already abandoned.”
All the teams that operate in the restoration sites are made up of scientists and academics who, before taking a step, analyze each circumstance and consequence. A few kilometers from Miguel Aleman, in a town called Janitzio, Caloca raises his hand and shows a property that looks like a dump. This is the last project of the alliance, where they will put their resources, water and money, to be able to raise a new green lung on these inhospitable lands. “This is how each site was before it began, but we will do the same thing that we have done in Miguel Aleman here.”