Blog Redux: Can Rare Floods Bring the Colorado River Delta Back?

Today, the Colorado River delta can only be inferred from the now-dry branches of the river that once nourished it. Photo: Pete McBride, USGS

In a couple of weeks, your trusty blogger will be traipsing across the desert Southwest, helping lead a group of journalists on a “learning expedition” down the Colorado River. This Wednesday, Science on Tap-Minocqua will host a conversation about Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.” A flicker of a long-lost blog post came to mind. What could these two things possible have to do with one another? Read more to find out…and stay tuned as, later this month, yours truly will see this story first-hand!

(Originally published March 24, 2014 and revised May 1, 2017) — I’m late to the party on this but, a few years back, a historic water agreement between the U.S. and Mexico freed up some flow for the Colorado River for nothing else than ecological benefit. At the end of last year, scientists released a report on what impact that two-month pulse of water had on the Colorado River Delta. It turns out, it was a lot.

The Nature Conservancy scientist Eloise Kendy returns to the Colorado River Delta to see the results of the historic release of water. Photo courtesy: The Nature Conservancy

A recent story by fantastic news outlet, Circle of Blue, (yes, we’re biased toward water-themed websites!) chronicles some of these changes – birds came back, salt was flushed from the system and trees that germinated in the 2014 flood now give scientists doing fieldwork shade. It brought the delta a tiny step closer to the world it once was when a certain Wisconsin icon took a visit…

In the fall of 1922, Aldo Leopold, on a camping trip with his son, Carl, and his dog, Flick, looked up to the sky to see “a huge ‘chimney’ of cranes, wheeling high in the sky…”

As Leopold would note in his journal, “When they got the glint of the sun, they showed pure white and looked like a huge skyrocket bursting into white sparks …”

To those of us here in Wisconsin, we picture the elder Leopold sitting outside of his Sand County shack on the banks on the Wisconsin River, documenting the annual migration.

But Leopold was 2,000 miles away from his home in a totally different ecosystem in the fall of 1922 – one that so impressed him that he vowed to never return in fear that it wouldn’t be the same.

As with many of Leopold’s prognostications, he was right. The thick cover of vegetation and skies teeming with waterfowl that marked his experience in the Colorado River delta are a far cry from where the ecosystem is today. In fact, it now resembles a desert more than anything else, as demand for water drains the river before it can reach the sea.

Can the Colorado River delta be returned to a wetland ecosystem? Photo: The Sonoran Institute

Can the Colorado River delta be returned to a wetland ecosystem? Photo: The Sonoran Institute

In the spring of 2014, though, a team of state agencies, universities and non-profit organizations took water they’d purchased from the Colorado, opened the Morelas Dam, and sent it all downstream, hoping that the two-month long flood would help jump-start the ecosystem. The flood came at a time of year when cottonwoods and willows release their seeds. Scientists hoped it could raise groundwater levels to a place where the roots of these and other native plants would find a reliable source of water. Researchers monitored all sorts of variables throughout the experiment, from water chemistry, to germination of seeds to survival of plants and surveys of wildlife. They hoped that this, combined with future “pulse floods” can at least begin to resurrect the arid ecosystem.

 

Today, just below the Morelas Dam, the Colorado River runs dry. But, scientists hope a new flood can revive dormant seeds of native plants and begin to restore the ecosystem. Photo: Pete McBride, USGS

Today, just below the Morelas Dam, the Colorado River runs dry. But, scientists hope a new flood can revive dormant seeds of native plants and begin to restore the ecosystem. Photo: Pete McBride, USGS

As the Circle of Blue article indicates, the initial reports were promising. We’ll be watching as this experiment continues to unfold. Last year a group of proponents secured more than 200,000 acre feet of water, enough for nine year’s worth of smaller “pulse flows” downstream. Hopefully those future flows carry good news with them and, maybe, more insights on wetland restoration. Perhaps it’s a step toward getting the Colorado River delta back to a fraction of its former glory. For aquatic scientists, the chance to send millions upon millions of water gushing downstream into a historic wetland in a real-world experiment may once have seemed, like Leopold’s 1922 camping trip, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m sure that, in this case, they don’t mind being wrong!

 

Top Photo:Today, the Colorado River delta can only be inferred from the now-dry branches of the river that once nourished it. Photo: Pete McBride, USGS

 Excerpts from Aldo Leopold’s journal were taken from the excellent book by Curt D. Meine, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Blog Redux: Can Rare Floods Bring the Colorado River Delta Back?

  1. Thanks for this interesting article. The historical event of the Pulse Flow haven’t been reported in the german speaking part of the world todate, expect Heidis Mist, a platform for water protection in agriculture mainly. I hope the Colorado River Delta will get back parts of its original beauty!
    Kind regards from Switzerland
    Heidi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.