MEX - Why has the Colorado River Delta in Mexico dried up?
Manuel Machado Gerardo watched the mighty Colorado River Delta die perhaps more clearly than any man alive. Taking the final drags from his cigarette, he steps outside his home to greet the 112-degree heat and survey the hundreds of acres of northern Mexico farmland he’s owned for decades.
At 78 years old, he walks slowly with a limp and a slight hunch in his back. But he’s surprisingly agile for his age, some youth preserved by his dry, witty humor and an insistence that he still work his farm, where for 56 years Gerardo has grown everything the fertile Mexicali Valley would allow.
Pushed up against the U.S. border in the Mexican state of Baja California, the Mexicali Valley houses the final 100 miles of the Colorado River. Thousands of miles of winding tributaries take snowmelt from the lush Rocky Mountains through the high country of Wyoming, Colorado and Utah and into the red rock desert of the American southwest, emptying into the Mexicali Valley and eventually the Sea of Cortez.
The reality is grim at the end of the river. The population growth, government policies and climate change that have brought the Colorado to its knees are palpable.
In Mexico, the river is a shell of its former self, in many places conveyed by concrete canals to bring water to farmers, while the natural riverbed goes dry. Tijuana, Baja California’s largest city that relies on the Colorado River, is slipping further into crisis as entire communities are hit with random water blackouts. And advocates have little faith that the Mexican government and its rotating door of bureaucrats can deliver real solutions.
Yet for the second time in years, much of the river was alive again thanks to a recent treaty between the U.S., Mexico and a handful of nongovernmental organizations that allocated water to the ecosystem.
Water returned to parts of the river that had been reduced to dust, bolstering environmental remediation projects and giving communities in the Mexicali Valley a reason to hope.
Life was the same, but with water
Standing beside his nephew and godson, Gerardo opened a book — “A Photographic History of the Colorado River,” the cover read, in Spanish — and flipped through several pages. He stopped at a black-and-white image of a steamboat, taken near present-day Yuma, Arizona, in 1876. Dozens of passengers stand on the deck, behind them what appears to be a large lake, or even the ocean.
“This was taken 20, 30 kilometers from (here),” he says, pointing north.
The demise of the Colorado River Delta began in 1944 when Gerardo was an infant, after the U.S. and Mexico signed a treaty allocating 1.5 million acre-feet of water south of the border. The river was still nearly 10 miles wide at some sections, spanning the rugged mountains west of the Mexicali Valley to Yuma, Arizona. Steamboats shuttled horses, then cars, from Mexicali to San Luis across the rich delta that jaguars, beavers, deer and coyotes once called home.
“On the map the Delta was bisected by the river, but in fact the river was nowhere and everywhere, for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf,” wrote American author Aldo Leopold in 1922.