Jun 032015
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Colorado River at Yuma

Conservation and restoration projects seek to restore habitats and
balance human needs for water with the needs of native plant, wildlife and marine species

In Colorado River Story – Part 1, I wrote about the dams built from 1908 to 1968 to harness the water and power of the river. Although the dams provide power and water to millions of people, irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, control flooding and create recreational spaces, they have also created unintended consequences. The Colorado River no longer runs to the Gulf of California, but instead dries up before the U.S/Mexico border. Wetlands have disappeared. Colder water temperatures, lake environments, reduced sediment and lack of seasonal flooding have had negative impact on native species. Non-native tamarisk, also known as saltcedar, thrives in many of the depleted environments and quickly dominates.

With the human need for water in the area increasing and levels in the Colorado River declining, the situation appears bleak, but I found encouraging signs when I learned about some of the restoration and conservation projects underway in the lower Colorado area.

The Yuma Wetlands Project (YEW) is pioneered by the Quechan Indian Tribe and the city of Yuma. The YEW project developed innovative clearing, irrigation and planting techniques on 1,418 acres of riparian, wetland and aquatic habitats. The recovering bird population is emblematic of the success of the project.

The Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program seeks to balance human use of water with the needs of native species and their habitat. Conservation activities benefit 31 species of endangered or sensitive fish, wildlife and plants. During its 50 year duration , the program will create over 8,100 acres of habitat, stock over 1.2 million native fish and monitor 400 miles of river extending from Lake Mead to the U.S./Mexico border.

In 2012, the U.S. and Mexico signed a five-year agreement to address issues in the Colorado River Delta related to bi-lateral water management during periods of drought and historic losses of water flow. “Minute 319” includes elements for enhancing water infrastructure, conservation, water sharing and promoting the health of the river delta. The Colorado River Delta Restoration Project aims to create almost 9,000 acres of ecologically functional demonstration sites of healthy terrestrial and aquatic habitat by 2017.

I became intrigued with this project after reading about it in the newspaper. When I learned that Dr. Francisco Zamora Arroyo, director of the project, was giving a lecture at a Mesa, Arizona public library, sponsored by the Desert Rivers Audubon Society and the AZ Sci-tech Festival, I welcomed the opportunity to attend and learn more about the project.

The project targets the riparian corridor between Yuma and the U.S./Mexico border, with the restoration site in the Laguna Grande area. Restoration is done by creating conditions for natural germination. An active restoration approach involves planting mature trees and irrigation. A passive approach involves getting water back into the area and letting nature take its course. Dr. Zamora said they discovered a need for a hybrid approach, an assisted approach in which non-native species are removed, grading is done to open river channels, and seeds are collected and spread in some areas.

All approaches require getting water back into the area. This is done with controlled flows from the dams. Two types of flow are part of Minute 319. Base flows are small amounts released continuously through the term of the agreement. A one-time pulse flow, during March and April of 2014, released a larger surge of water over an 8-week period, with the majority concentrated within 4 weeks. The pulse flow was meant to mimic the annual spring flooding that used to occur. As a result of that pulse, water flow reached further than expected, to open estuaries from the the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. The flow was temporary, but exciting and provided signs of comeback.

In many ways, the restoration project is a research effort, with scientists studying and recording impacts and outcomes. They’ve learned that native plants have a higher establishment rate when non-native vegetation is cleared out. Base flows have been reduced in summer as per a natural cycle.

Results to date are promising. In some areas, cottonwoods and willows have grown within a few months. There has been an increase in bird populations.

The Minute 319 agreement ends in 2017. In his lecture, Dr. Zamora mentioned the need for a new agreement, but his overall message was one of hope. He ended the lecture with a 10 minute video about the experience of the river coming alive again after the pulse flow. The film is narrated by Robert Redford. The scenes of families in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico playing and laughing in the river flowing by their town, a sight many had never seen, can’t help but make you smile. I invite you to watch the film here.

Yuma wetland

Colorado River and Yuma wetlands area

Several organizations are funding and supporting projects to save the Colorado River and restore habitats. Save the Colorado and Raise the River are two such initiatives. I wonder how the story of the Colorado River will unfold over the next decades and what part 3 of the story will bring.

(Information sources: displays at Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, February 2015 lecture by Dr. Francisco Zamora Arroyo, Sonoran Institute)

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  30 Responses to “Colorado River Story – Part 2”

  1. Hi Donna, I knew about the problems and concerns of the Colorado River, but did not know about these restoration activities. Very interesting article and the video was wonderful. I was glad I took the time to watch it.

  2. Water is indeed the new gold and, thankfully, we in the US are just starting to realize that this resource is one we can no longer take for granted. Loved reading about the conservation projects that you mentioned in this post. How encouraging to see some real gains in balancing our use of this resource with other species as well as reclaiming some of its former environmental and recreational uses. Very interesting, Donna! Anita

    • Thanks Anita. I found the story of the Colorado Restoration project fascinating and am glad you enjoyed reading about it. It is encouraging.

  3. An upbeat post for sure. Nice to know there are so many people committed to restoring the river and the many speciies that depend on it. Hope they continue to meet with success.

  4. I’m glad I took the time to watch the video…it was time well spent. I love that these conservation efforts are in place and even succeeding! I hope and pray that these efforts continue!

    • Jacquie, I’m glad you enjoyed the video. I know many people aren’t going to take time to watch a 10 minute video, but I found it so inspiring I had to at least include a link.

  5. Good examples of taking care of nature and the environment which is essential. Glad the Colorado river is benefiting from such initiatives.

  6. I really wasn’t aware of the problems with the Colorado river. I think it is so necessary that restoration projects like this exist. We are living in a time when the focus is so much on technology and little value is placed on habitat. But we will ultimately be lost without it, so it is wonderful that some organizations understand the necessity to help preserve what is left in nature.

    • Erica, it was certainly uplifting to find out about the initiatives working to restore habitat.

  7. Donna, I am so happy to learn that the restoration projects are working. It makes sense that native plants have a higher establishment rate when non-native vegetation is cleared out. A hybrid approach makes a lot of sense. I hope that the next chapter will bring much success.

    • Beth, I also hope the next chapter brings success. I don’t know if there will be issues with keeping the non-native vegetation from returning.

  8. Fantastic to hear about restoration efforts. By and large though we humans as a population need to do our part on the other end of the tap and learn to be better conservationists ourselves in how much water we use. Everyone has a role to play that much is for sure.

    • Jeri, we humans certainly do need to do a better job on conservation of water, especially in the western world.

  9. Donna, I find these posts about the Colorado River absolutely fascinating. It is just so wonderful that restoration of the river is not only possible but actually being carried out. I enjoyed the part about the “families in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico playing and laughing in the river flowing by their town, a sight many had never seen, can’t help but make you smile.“ How terrific that you were in the right place at the time to attend the lecture by Dr. Francisco Zamora Arroyo. I guess snowbirding provides different opportunities than shoveling out the walk in Winnipeg.

    • Thanks Lenie. I became fascinated with the story when I first started reading bits and pieces in the Arizona paper. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Zamora’s lecture.

  10. Interesting Donna but like you say, it will be very interesting to see exactly how this plays out; hopefully mother nature is a partner in all this.

    • Yes, Tim, hopefully mother nature is a partner and we don’t see negative, unintended consequences with the restoration efforts.

  11. Love reading about the restoration projects! I hope that a new agreement is setup to continue the work that will end in 2017. It’s a wonderful thing to have the plants, birds and trees making a comeback.

  12. This is such an upbeat post. It’s so rare to read about positive government programs and their outcomes. To show you how shaded I’ve become, when you mentioned Dr Zamora and new agreement, I was sure the nest words were, “doesn’t look promising”. It’s wonderful to see the river coming back to life. I wish the media focused more on projects like these instead of all the government funded ideas that never get off the ground or just peter out.

  13. Wonderful article and background on what’s happening with the Colorado River Donna! Living in the Islands for so long it’s been decades since I’ve been to the River but when I was a rebellious twenty something our big thing was to take off for weekend jaunts to the River to get in trouble the way people that age do to blow off steam. It’s encouraging to see the concern and efforts underway to save the area and I hope it all works out.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article. I wonder if you’d find a lot of difference now in the area you used to frequent with weekend jaunts.

  14. I hope things work out for the best.

  15. Sometimes I wonder about the folly of man. We build huge dams, or remove wetlands near the coast. Then we have to come up with a way of fixing those issues after a draught, or hurricane. I did like your article, I have a great desire to see the Colorado River someday. Thanks for sharing.

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