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Colorado River reconnects with Gulf of California

Conservationists cheer as pulse flow reinvigorates the mighty river

May 21, 2014

The Colorado River Delta once again features flowing water, as the river and the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, became reconnected after 16 years of separation.

The Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles from its headwaters in the rocky Mountains of Colorado to the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) in northwestern Mexico, now can reach its final, natural destination.

The river was reinvigorated by an experimental flood of water released earlier this spring from the Morelos Dam just south of where California, Arizona and Mexico meet. The experiment, called a “pulse flow,” slowly sent water traveling down more than 100 miles of barren delta.

“The pulse flow meeting the sea marks completion of a journey that the Colorado River has not made in a long time, and I take it as a sign of hope not only for our efforts to restore the Colorado River Delta, but also rivers and watersheds everywhere in the world where climate change promises an uncertain future,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project.

Conservationists hope the Colorado River’s reconnection with the Sea of Cortez will spur new tree growth, restore habitat, and encourage birds and other wildlife to return to the area.

This confluence of the river and the high tides shows that “improving estuarine conditions in this upper part of the estuary is possible if restoration efforts continue in the future,” said Francisco Zamora, director of the Colorado River Delta Legacy program at the Sonoran Institute.

Much of the West, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, is heavily reliant on the Colorado for its drinking water. But so are the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora- states that have seen very little of the once mighty river.

Deltas and estuaries- where rivers and seas connect- are some of the most biologically rich ecosystems on the planet.

The pulse flow, which was designed to mimic the Colorado’s natural spring flood, is an experiment of historic political and ecological significance: it is the first time the United States and Mexico have made a conscious decision to give some water back to the river to revive the health and habitats of its delta.

One of the planet’s great desert aquatic ecosystems, the delta once boasted some 2 million acres of lush wetlands teeming with birds and wildlife.

Over the past eight weeks, the pulse flow has brought needed water to active delta restoration sites, where conservation groups have planted hundreds of thousands of cottonwoods, willows and mesquite to begin re-establishing habitats for hundreds of species of birds and wildlife.

“It’s been very exciting for all of us to track the pulse flow as it has moved downstream to parts of the Colorado River channel that have been dry for years. To say that we reconnected the river with the sea is especially gratifying,” said Edward Drusina, U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission.

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