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Planners Seek Water to Revive Mexico's Colorado Delta

Frank Clifford
Los Angeles Times,
Friday, March 28, 1997

CUCAPA EL MAYOR, Mexico -- Maria Isabella Gonzalez Portillo's Cucupa Indian forebears made a good living in the Colorado River delta, fishing, hunting and guiding in what was once the largest desert estuary on the North American continent.

Today, Gonzalez Portillo is barely getting by -- and, sadly, not because of the land. She makes $2 glass bead necklaces for sale to occasional visitors, while her husband drives a dump truck.

Once a watery jungle teeming with fish, birds, deer, bobcat and jaguar, their delta -- an area nearly the size of Rhode Island -- is now a giant dust bin. The river that gave it life is a ghost of its former self, drained by a host of competing interests long before it reaches here.

In this nearly forgotten land just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, the 200 remaining Cucupa wait for the river to rise again, the wildlife to reappear and the good times to return.

It could happen. Forces on both sides of the border are poised to try. And if the effort succeeds, the benefits would extend far beyond the boundaries of the Cucupas' ancestral home.

After diverting water from the delta for 60 years to grow crops and cities from Las Vegas to Mexicali, the United States and Mexico have begun to talk about ways of restoring some of the Colorado's historic flow -- enough to sustain the Cucupa and a few thousand subsistence farmers as well as stabilize what is left of the ecosystem and its endangered fish and birds.

Industry Is Sinking: Historically, the delta's mixture of fresh and salt water nursed marine life that supported the fishing industry on the Sea of Cortez. That industry is now in trouble. So are several endemic species, including the vaquita, the world's smallest porpoise and now one of its most imperiled sea mammals

The Mexican government made the first move toward restoration with the recent creation of a biosphere reserve. The designation limits commercial fishing, hunting and petroleum exploration in the delta and the upper reaches of the Sea of Cortez while government scientists seek ways to rehabilitate fisheries and wildlife habitat.

But the reserve won't flourish without more fresh water. Increasing the flow will necessitate compromise by powerful interests in both countries, and it will require the technological ingenuity to find water in a river system that is all but drained dry by the time it reaches the border.

The modern delta is a barren wedge of desert and salt flats where, some days, the only people to be seen for miles are military patrols on the lookout for drug smugglers.

 The delta began to dry up with the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1936. Thirty years and 28 dams later, the Colorado had been so thoroughly plumbed and diverted, water made it to the Gulf of California only in years of unusually high snow melt. Even then, the region receives nowhere near the amount of water it got before the dams were built.

States at Loggerheads: Moreover, none of the laws and treaties that apportion Colorado River water make any concessions to the environment on either side of the border. The seven states with Colorado River water rights continually butt heads over their entitlements. For years, California has taken more than its legal share.

In Mexico, which only gets 10 percent of the Colorado's flow, rapidly growing urban and agricultural interests are expected to lay claim to any new source of water that might be made available.

''The issue is one of political will,'' said Chelsea Congdon, a resource analyst for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.

Congdon and other experts pin their hopes for a delta renaissance on modern methods of recapturing periodic flood flows and on recycling waste water from farm fields and treatment plants along the Colorado north of the delta.

But on the Colorado there is keen competition for almost any kind of water, even used water. At this point, it is not clear whether either government is willing to go to bat for nature or the Cucupa if it means bucking entrenched agricultural and development interests.

    ''We have calculated it will take 500,000 to 750,000 acre-feet of water a year to make the delta whole again all the way to the ocean, and that's not going to happen,'' said Gary Bryant, area manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Yuma, Ariz.

    In other words, it would require more water than all of San Diego County receives from the Colorado in a year -- and from a river that is already over-subscribed.

    But full restoration of the region is not on anyone's agenda.

    Before people began altering the course of the Colorado, its delta covered about 3,000 square miles, an area that encompassed much of California's Imperial Valley.

    In the 16th century, Spanish sea captains sailed up the mouth of the Colorado, believing the Baja peninsula was an island and that the delta would lead to the Pacific. Two hundred years later, the U.S. military ran steamboats in the delta, carrying supplies for western forts from the Gulf of California as far north as Yuma.

Today, Mexican fishermen in oversized dories known as pangas are lucky to make their way a few miles up the river from the gulf.

When people refer to the modern delta, they are talking about 1,000 square miles, south of San Luis Rio Colorado and Mexicali and north of the Sea of Cortez, that has not been developed or cultivated on a grand scale. Of that, delta advocates call for enough water to inundate river channels and former wetlands that cover about 25 percent of the region.

Ed Glenn, a professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona, contends that the improvements he and other experts call for wouldn't require a great deal of extra water or money.

Glenn and Mexican colleagues at Monterrey's Instituto de Tecnologico Y Estudios Superiores are looking at a variety of strategies for providing water to the delta.

One proposal calls for a series of simple earthen dams in the Colorado that would push intermittent flows over the banks and into the flood plain.

Another involves a planned treatment plant in Mexicali which, if so designed, could funnel filtered waste water into the Rio Hardy, a Colorado River tributary that flows south through the Cucupa lands.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is paying about half of the cost of a plant that would treat toxic waste that now flows north into the Salton Sea in California.

But redirecting the flow to the Rio Hardy from the new plant would be more expensive, engineers say, because it would mean pumping uphill. It would also mean bypassing agricultural interests in the Mexicali Valley.

The prospect of releasing a new supply of clean water into the delta has appeal in Mexico, said Oscar Sanchez, an agronomist and farmer in the Mexicali Valley. But there will be pressure upstream to take the water.