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Don't ignore Colorado delta

Editorial, Arizona Daily Star, Tuscon, May 6, 1998

A river and its delta are inseparable; to heal one you must heal the other.

For that reason, environmentalists are right to urge that a multi-player drive to repair the sad, subjugated Colorado River also address the state of the river's dried-out Mexican delta.

Only through such a widening of regard can there be a true restoration of this critical river.

At present, the so-called Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program remains incomplete, if welcome.

Established last year, the program embodies a hopeful bid by more than two dozen state, federal, Indian and utility interests to collaborate on a 50-year scheme for protecting the species and resources of the great river.

Since 1909 the Colorado has been turned by dams and diversions into the most engineered river in the world. Now at last a sizable array of stakeholders is working to save some 102 river-dependent rare birds, fish and mammals from the extinction the engineering threatens.

All told the project represents the widest-ranging push going to respond to the ecological crisis that has turned the once-wild Colorado into a string of biologically-impoverished reservoirs.

Yet for all this the Lower Colorado conservation program falls short because it stops short.

Consider that while the river that begins in northwestern Colorado continues into Mexico - or at least used to - the multi-species conservation effort as of now ends at the U.S./Mexico border.

This occurs because the species effort's steering committee is resisting inclusion of the river's delta in the program's early study phase. In effect, those plotting the river's future - no doubt fearing the identification of new water needs - are refusing to deliberate on the conversion, mostly by U.S. water diversions, of the delta's once-vast complex of marshes

Which is to say: The Southwest's major effort to apply conservation principles to managing the river seems intent on ignoring that the river does not reach the sea, and only rarely receives in its delta the water flows that once made it, as the conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold wrote in 1922, ``a milk-and-honey wilderness . . . a paradise of birds.''

Clearly, this myopia makes no sense. As a matter of fairness, such exclusivity perpetuates the disregard for Mexico of 90 years of American river management. As conservation, the steering committee's narrowness flies in the face of the fundamental principle of ecology that calls for land managers to look to the good of the whole system, not just its parts.

And so the river committee should accede to the suggestions of some of its own members - including the well-regarded Defenders of Wildlife &endash; to consider in its thinking the 90 miles of the Colorado that lay dry and troubled in Mexico.

Badly in need of water, and respect, those 90 miles remain crucial to the success of any effort to re-create some of the integrity of the whole river. There can, finally, be no true restoration of the Lower Colorado without restoration of the river's delta, and its run to the sea.