California Forum

I killed the Colorado River – and so did you

Local environmentalist Juan Butrun pretends to drink water from the dry channel of the Colorado River downstream from the Morelos Dam.
Local environmentalist Juan Butrun pretends to drink water from the dry channel of the Colorado River downstream from the Morelos Dam. Special to The Bee

There’s a small shell on my desk at work. It’s not much, this freshwater clam about an inch across.

But this shell has quickly become an important symbol for me as I ponder the future of my reporting on environmental issues.

While on a recent fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, my fingernails dug this little clamshell out of a dry bed of sand where the Colorado River once flowed through the Mexicali Valley south of the border from Yuma, Arizona.

Once so powerful it carved out the Grand Canyon and formed a vast marshy delta flowing into the Gulf of California, the Colorado’s last 70 miles through Mexico largely have been bone dry for two decades. When it vanished, the Colorado left behind miles of desolate sandy river bed and a salt-crusted plain where it once emptied into the sea.

There, the entire Colorado River is now gone.

Once so powerful it carved out the Grand Canyon and formed a vast marshy delta flowing into the Gulf of California, the Colorado’s last 70 miles through Mexico largely have been bone dry for two decades. When it vanished, the Colorado left behind miles of desolate sandy river bed and a salt-crusted plain where it once emptied into the sea.

Nearly 100 years ago, before dams and canals drained it dry, naturalist Aldo Leopold canoed through the Colorado River’s delta.

He called it a “land of a hundred green lagoons,” and one of the most stunningly beautiful habitats he had ever encountered, two million acres of wetlands teeming with fish, migratory birds, even jaguars.

That’s almost all gone now, replaced with a wasteland straight out of “Mad Max,” and a few patches of marshland that environmental groups are struggling to expand or just keep alive.

A few dozen miles upstream from the patch of sand where I pulled my shell, the river takes a hard right turn at Mexico’s Morelos Dam into a large concrete drainage ditch.

From there, the Colorado’s water is shunted off to grow Mexico’s crops and supply its cities.

In the era of Trump’s border wall, it might be easy for some Americans to blame Mexico for the river’s disappearance, but that country’s take from the Colorado is just a fraction of its use. Thirty-five million Americans use it for tapwater. Its waters irrigate millions of acres of our farmland.

We’re all reliant on the Colorado in some way.

Ever eat lettuce in the winter? Wear cotton underwear? Watch a Hollywood-produced blockbuster or sitcom? Party in Vegas? Catch a Cactus League baseball game?

You’re why the Colorado is dry.

So am I.

Below Hoover Dam, the Golden State takes the biggest gulp, siphoning away half of the river to grow miles upon miles of crops, such as lettuce, broccoli and table grapes, in what’s called America’s “winter salad bowl” in the Imperial, Coachella and Palo Verde valleys. A 242-mile canal to Southern California provides a key source of tapwater for half of the state’s population.

Between the Arizonans, Mexicans and Nevadans who get the rest, the river gets steadily smaller as it moves south. Until it just disappears.

Things aren’t much looking better in the years ahead.

The level in Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam has been steadily declining over the past 17 years due to drought. Officials in the various states have been negotiating a plan to leave enough water in the nation’s largest reservoir to avert a crisis known as “deadpool” when Mead gets so low Hoover can no longer release water. Political infighting among the various Western water factions has ground progress to a halt.

Even if the plan gets passed, water for environmental purposes is little more than an afterthought. Meanwhile, developers are building away in California, Arizona and Nevada.

I don’t have a lot of hope that the Colorado River is going to flow again to the ocean anytime soon.

During our reporting fellowship, my tour group visited a small wetland in the dry Mexican Colorado River bottoms near where I found my little shell. Environmental groups led by the Sonoran Institute had restored a few hundred acres of cottonwood marsh, using irrigation water. In 2014, the Mexican and U.S. governments agreed to allow a one-time pulse of water into the dry river from the dams above just to see how nature would respond.

Workers with a local conservation group described for us how nearby families were sometimes invited to visit the site. They said children who’d never seen such a thing frolicked through the cottonwoods. During the pulse, some of their grandparents wept, remembering what it once looked like when the Colorado River had water. These stories were bittersweet for me, a duck hunter who spends his falls slogging through marshlands and whose fondest childhood memories are fishing with his grandfather in Siskiyou County’s rivers.

It was great that folks cared enough to restore this habitat for these folks to enjoy, but it was a pitiful thing, really – a small man-made oasis the middle of 70 miles of desert hellscape where water once flowed, water that we took from it.

A lump still forms in my throat when I think about it.

Not long after, I put my little shell in my pocket. I wanted it to remember what that moment felt like as I write my stories in the months and years ahead. I want to never forget what it’s like to stand on the carcass of the river that I helped kill.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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