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Pete McBride: Honoring Water on San Luis Río Colorado

Pete McBride  /  Aug 27, 2014  /  9 Min Read  /  Activism

The Colorado River claws its way to the sea for the first time in nearly two decades thanks to a historic binational agreement in the spring of 2014. The temporary "pulse flow" was considered an experiment to restore this once vast and rich delta region. Photo: Pete McBride

On an unusual Monday in March in the hamlet of San Luis Río Colorado, in the Mexican state of Sonora, hundreds of people gathered below a bridge that spans the dry channel of the Colorado River. The polka-beat of Ranchero music mixed with the sound of laughter across the sandy basin. It was a party of all ages and everyone waited for the guest of honor: agua.

Editor’s note: In 2011, Patagonia’s environmental campaign, Our Common Waters, explored the need to balance human water needs with those of animals and plants. One of the most powerful stories to come out of that campaign was Pete McBride traveling the length of the Colorado River in his short film, Chasing Water. Today, we’re pleased to share a follow-up story from Pete.

Located 23 miles downstream of Morelos Dam—the last dam on the Colorado—San Luis is where the river finally leaves the border behind and journeys into mainland Mexico. From here, the riverbed winds 80 some miles (148 kms) to the Sea of Cortez. But for nearly two decades, water has rarely escaped the sealed downstream gates of the dam. Instead, Mexico’s entire Colorado River allocation turns west—diverted into the giant, concrete irrigation Reforma Canal so we can eat baby spinach in the winter. What is left below is a river of sand.

Above: Delta Dawn – Paddling a River Run Free. Video: Pete McBride.

But at 8 a.m. on Sunday, March 23, the red steel gates glided open, releasing the beginning of a 105,392-acre-foot “pulse flow” (an acre foot is roughly a football field one foot deep). This blast of moisture, designed by hydrologists to mimic a natural flood, would last eight weeks with a peak flow cresting today, March 27, until 30. An additional 52,000 acre-feet will be dispersed over a five-year period as a supplemental “base flow” to support sprouting vegetation. All said and done, this gush of liquid gold represents what many thought to be the unfathomable—an international partnership to bring a river back to life.

By Tuesday in San Luis, the party by the bridge had significantly swelled. The river was late, but no one seemed deterred. Two men in business suits walked the dry riverbed before me. I asked them why they braved the heat here on this sunny afternoon.

“We are here to see the water, of course. Do you know where it is?” they asked in Spanish.

Arriba. Upstream I think. It should pass here soon, for a bit,” I speculate.

Si, que bien, soon is good but we need to see it here permanently.” He smiled and they continued walking the sand, looking upstream.


My journey here started years ago and miles upstream—1,300 (1860 km) to be precise.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in central Colorado in the headwaters of the Colorado River. As a boy, I spent hours chasing water around our hay fields. Standing knee deep in muddy ditches, leaning on my shovel, I often tried to read the water’s future path.

I also pondered how long it would take that water—snowmelt originating in the 14,000-foot peaks shrouding the valley—to cross our fields, gurgle down creeks, merge with the mighty Colorado, and eventually make the 1,450-mile march across seven states and northern Mexico before it terminated in the Sea of Cortez.

That innocent query inspired this quest, some twenty years later, to explore every nook of the river’s basin, most of it from a bird’s eye vantage point in the hope of offering some human perspective and awareness to an impossibly complicated issue.

The snowmelt that crosses our family ranch today has followed a path down the Colorado River for six million years, creating one of the largest desert estuaries in North America—a 3,000 square mile wetland just over what today is the Mexican border at the terminus—where I am standing under a desert sun watching this river fiesta unfold.

But roughly 100 years ago, we started figuring out the power of irrigation and diversions. In the effort to green the desert, we created a network of pipelines and canals that is nothing less than an engineering marvel. We allocated millions of acre-feet of water over four million acres of farmland throughout seven Western states creating “America’s Salad Bowl.”

The Colorado River, although neither the longest nor largest river in the United States (it is the seventh), is one of the most loved and litigated rivers in the world. It also touches nearly every home in America via lettuce and carrots as the entire commercial winter lettuce crop comes from Colorado River farms in Arizona, California and Mexico. Today, the economies and lifestyles of over 36 million people rely on this waterway. And worldwide, it is famous for it’s Grand Canyon revealing the oldest rocks on the planet. For recreationalists, this river, dubbed the American Nile, is a lifeline grossing 26 billion dollars a year via rafting, fishing, picnicking and the stores and businesses around them.

Yet as a growing population collectively moans for more water to fill emerging thirsts, the Colorado River, somewhere, groans from another dehydrating straw. Today the river’s delta in Mexico is alarming proof of such thirst. Engineering expertise combined with climate change and a persistent drought lasting over a decade, the river runs dry some 100 miles short of its historically famed wild estuary—just upstream from the San Luis Bridge. Not a single drop of the Colorado River, has reached the sea since 1998. Its multi-million-year-old estuary is now a desert shadow of itself; a river cemetery of sorts.

But the rare pulse flow experiment in March changed everything—temporarily. The polka party beneath the crooked concrete bridge covered with graffiti, symbolized what can happen when two countries work together and armies of passionate environmental activists link arms. The gates of a dam can open.

By Wednesday, March 27th, the San Luis fiesta had quadrupled. And in the distance, 300 yards above the bridge, I saw why. Like nearly everyone passing by either in vehicles or by foot, I was stopped in my tracks. The agua had finally made its debut. Inch by patient inch, the river moved down its old dusty path toward the San Luis Bridge. A sense of giddiness grew with every foot the water advanced. Families picnicked in the backs of trucks and on beach towels beneath shade tents; fireworks popped, kids splashed in the shallows, cowboys danced horses and ATVs and dune buggies roared about, rooster-tailing sand into the afternoon light.

McBride_CORiverDelta_140329_255111559Celebrating the historic 2014 pulse flow as it moved across the dry Colorado River Delta below the Morelos Dam in Mexico. Photo: Pete McBride

In 2012, after years of uphill work and an earthquake that left Mexico’s irrigation system shattered and water managers scrambling for water storage. Officials agreed on an addendum, known as Minute 319, to the original U.S.-Mexican water treaty of 1944. The agreement states that the United States and Mexico will share water surpluses and shortages until the end of 2017. It also mandates the experimental release of what it calls “water for the environment,” in a deal brokered by a coalition of NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, The Sonoran Institute, and the Mexican conservation group Pronatura.

In light of California’s largest drought in decades, some are grumbling about wasted water. However the flow isn’t coming from America’s water budget. Technically, it’s made up of surplus Mexican water from previous years, banked in Lake Mead (providing additional benefits like helping Vegas’ drinking supply) and paid for by environmental groups. And in the grand scheme, the water allocation is puny—less than one percent of the river’s average annual flow.

For some, there is a concern that this flow will prove to be more symbolic than a true fix. Fred Philips, a habitat-restoration expert based in Yuma, Arizona, is moved that this section of river, “the most forgotten in the world,” is getting attention. For months, Phillips and scientists from Pronatura and the Sonoran Institute have been scurrying around the chapped delta, wedging saplings and planting seeds, holding their breaths to see if the vegetation recovers and if some of the delta’s 300,000 migrating birds return.

But Phillips worries that the hype will die when the eight-week pulse finishes (May 2014)–leaving many people’s hopes to dry up with the delta again. “They should use the minimum amount of water for the photo op,” he says, “and the maximum amount for habitat restoration.”

To see for myself the results of the pulse flow, I joined a few friends and did what any river lover would do. We took canoes and stand up paddleboards (SUP) downstream. In a series of three trips to time the pulse’s movement (we paddle faster than the growing river) we chased the surge through the delta. After 40 miles we abandoned the canoes due to dense overgrowth. But inspired by the chance of reaching the sea, we pushed on.

Joined by delta native Juan Butron and longtime river activist/philanthropist/hydrologist Sam Walton, we pushed south through miles of bushwhacking and murky bogs. We experienced long moments of breathtaking beauty bustling with wildlife—but also desperate hours of belly crawling through thorned mesquite thickets, 107-degree heat, swarms of infuriated mosquitoes and were forced to do nighttime stealth maneuvers to dodge drug traffickers. I kept reminding myself around each scratchy, muddy corner, that floating/paddling/crawling through mud was better than walking a dry abandoned channel. The sounds of coyotes and over 50 species of birds, including the endangered Clapper Rail, helped cheer us forward.

When I first started chasing the Colorado, nobody spoke about water in the delta. That was six years ago, when I joined my friend Jon Waterman on a mission to travel the river source to sea. Back then, when we reached the waters end, we walked—nearly 100 miles through cracked, chapped desert. It was one of the hardest, harshest walks of my life.

In 1922 the American conservationist Aldo Leopold took a canoe down the delta and wrote, “The river was nowhere and everywhere, for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons to take to the sea.” Before that, steam ships navigated the delta carrying passengers from Arizona to California—pre train tracks.

I wanted to see just a glimmer of that old wet delta world. The pulse was the ticket and walking was out of the question.

We did find moments of a river “nowhere and everywhere.” We also saw life rebounding before our eyes as native species of cottonwood and willows germinated on cue. After nine days of paddling 92 miles through thick and thin, coiling green waters and shallow mucky salt flats, we reached the high-tide line of the Sea of Cortez. It would be the first stand up paddle-board expedition across the delta—hopefully not the last. It would also be the only complete traverse of today’s delta as its restoration waters have already receded.

Was it an absurd mission, foolish even? Sure, but our journey symbolized the power of people working together—that it is possible to revive one of the world’s great rivers back from the grave and connect it to the sea again—starting with a trickle.

After the trip, Sam wrote, “One pulse does not a living system make, but it does remind us that it is alive.” As the sun set across the delta, we opened a special bottle of wine for the special occasion: fresh water kissing the sea. Our skin covered in salt, clay and black mud, we toasted skyward to a living delta, nowhere and everywhere before us.


To see more photos and video from Pete’s trip, check out “The Day We Set the Colorado River Free” at Outside Magazine.

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