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

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

If you live in Wisconsin that means you’ve endured a week or cold, gray, rainy weather and you’ve now got an intense case of “the Mondays.” So I thought I’d look around for a “good news” story. And, boy, did I find one.

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 and that’s where this previous blog post comes in to play…

(previously published 3/24/14)  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

Yesterday, though, a team of state agencies, universities and non-profit organizations will take the water they’ve purchased from the Colorado, open the Morelas Dam, and send it all downstream, hoping that the two-month long flood can help jump-start the ecosystem. The flood is coming at a time of year when cottonwoods and willows release their seeds. Scientists hope it can raise groundwater levels to a place where the roots of these and other native plants can find a reliable source of water. Researchers will be monitoring all sorts of variables throughout the experiment, from water chemistry, to germination of seeds to survival of plants and surveys of wildlife. They hope 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

We’ll be watching as the experiment unfolds, hoping that the flood carries good news with it and, maybe, a few insights on wetland restoration. Perhaps it’s a step toward getting the Colorado River delta back to a fraction of its former glory. If nothing else, for aquatic scientists, the chance to send millions upon million of water gushing downstream into a historic wetland in a real-world experiment is, like Leopold’s 1922 camping trip, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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

Also, there is some concern over the carbon footprint of that pulse release – but this was a good news day! We’ll delve into the trade offs at a later date…

 

 

 

 

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

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