Colorado Delta Diary

From “Green Lagoons” to …

In the 20th century human beings managed to divert and assign ownership to every single drop of water in the Colorado River, leaving nothing for the riverbed and its surrounding delta below Yuma, Arizona. Since 1965 the only flow into these last one hundred miles of the river has been water no one wanted: spring floods too voluminous for the irrigation or diversion canals, groundwater below irrigated fields too salty for good crop growth, urban sewage too contaminated for reuse. Now in the 21st century there are efforts to find new sources of water to rejuvenate some of the Colorado Delta’s former abundance. Here is a diary from several days with the new waters, and with some of the people who nurture and measure the life brought back by these waters.

Monday: The River at The Border

Annotated Colorado Delta Wetland Map (courtesy of Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta)

Annotated Colorado Delta Wetland Map (courtesy of Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta)

[+]The Colorado River…

Dos Aguas drove the western back road from Yuma, AZ, US, to San Luis, Sonora, Mexico: twenty-five miles of gravel following the main channel of the Colorado River (see accompanying map). West Levee Road leaves downtown Yuma on the crest of the south levee, and soon bends left with the river. South of Morelos Dam the border with Mexico is drawn in the riverbed, now a mostly dry wash. At some point the road changes names to Salty Canal Road. In the distance on both sides of the border are the flat, groomed plots of irrigated farms. The US border fences present a great variety: low-slung rails or tall slats, in the riverbed or on the levee, sometimes between the levee and the Arizona fields to the east.

There was little traffic, but every two or three miles a green and white Border Patrol truck was parked on the road, or near the saline drainage canal at the base of the levee. The BP agents were watchful, polite, both curious and quizzical about a reporter driving this road alone. It soon became clear that each new agent had already heard by radio about the passage of the grey Toyota. When asked, each one remembered the pulse waters in the river last spring, but all that was months in the past. They assured Dos Aguas that the road was open all the way to San Luis.

Crossing the border southward is a relatively quick process, often with no questions, no inspection. Dos Aguas was waved through in a flash, and released into the heavy afternoon traffic of San Luis, narrow streets, small shops, colorful wares spread over the sidewalks. After a few wrong turns and missing streets signs the office of Pronatura was finally located, and the warm welcome of Alejandra (Alex) Calvo Fonseca gratefully received. “Hola, cómo estás? Do you want a drink? Come meet the others.”

Tuesday AM: The Pulse at Morelos Dam

[+]Pronatura Noroeste…

At exactly 8 am Juan Butrón knocked on Alex Fonseca’s wooden gate. “I arrived,” he announced. Only his green visor cap was visible through the portillo – a small opening in the cement wall for reading the electric meter. Within a few minutes the big white Chevy Suburban – named La Costala for its habits of gas consumption – was on its way through the streets of San Luis to the river. First a Circle K stop for coffee and Coke (with a smile Alex called the bottled drink veneno de rata, or rat poison), then across the bridge above the dry Colorado River and over the border from the State of Sonora into Baja California (BC). Juan turned north at Colonia Miguel Alemán to follow BC Highway 2 through the river bottoms. To the right, east, were the river and the US border. To the left was the irrigation canal, the ‘new’ Colorado River which channels all of the remaining water to the farms and cities of Mexico’s Northwest.

Juan Butrón at Morelos Dam, Nov 2014 (Rick Bowman).

Juan Butrón at Morelos Dam, Nov 2014 (Rick Bowman).


Just below Morelos Dam Juan parked on the shoulder and walked out to the Mexican bank of the river. He stood there looking north to the dam across a few hundred meters of flat riverbed, soggy from slow leaks through or around the dam. Half a dozen workers were scattered over the space, on both sides of the border, busily cutting vegetation by hand and dragging it into large piles. A few piles were rotting on the sand in front of Juan. Six months ago Morelos had released water down this channel for eight weeks to revive the vegetation. “Es una lástima,” he said. A shame. “One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. There were some beautiful, healthy plants here, and now for security’s sake they are cutting them.”

[+]Pulse Flow…

Juan turned around, driving south along the river. Before Rancho Linch he turned east on a field road, and in less than a kilometer parked by the fence row adjoining the riverbed. Alex, Juan and Dos Aguas walked into the brush, past a monitoring well, to the edge of the first channel. “The water was up to here,” Juan said, kicking his foot into the sand. “And all these seedlings are from the Pulse.” He pointed to dozens of willow shoots on the bank of the arroyo, most two or three feet high, one taller than Juan.

“The border is across that ridge, in the next arroyo,” he added. Over recent decades this river bed has reverted mostly to desert, tangled mesquite and tamarisk. There are a few riparian survivors – willows and cottonwoods – sustained by the irrigation runoff and the high water table. But the green has been transplanted from the river banks to the adjoining fields – squares, rectangles and a few circles covering the alluvial soils from Yuma to Mexicali and south toward the Gulf.

The US Border Patrol’s colorful trucks were visible on the far side watching over no man’s land from West Levee Road. “This can be a dangerous place,” Juan observed. “I remember when Osvel and I were right at this spot to check groundwater levels. We each had a little hand terminal to collect the well data. All of sudden two Mexican policemen appeared and yelled, ‘Manos arriba!’” Hands up. “Osvel bent over to put the terminal down, and the policeman shook the gun at him and yelled again, ‘Manos arriba!’ They marched us back to the truck, hands in the air, and didn’t even believe the logo painted on the door. They had never heard of Pronatura.”

Tuesday: Irrigation at Colonia Miguel Alemán

Irrigation at Sitio Miguel Alemán (Rick Bowman)

Irrigation at Sitio Miguel Alemán (Rick Bowman)

On the way back south Juan drove into the restoration site called Sitio Miguel Alemán – unused sandy lands on the shore of the old Colorado River. Here purchased irrigation water from the main canal is piped into contoured ditches to support new plantings of willow, mesquite, and cottonwood. The long, curving ditches and the white pipes are expanded regularly, and new plantings are added, often using volunteer labor. Juan remembers who planted each section, and when. “These rows of willows on the right were planted last month by the kids from the secondary school in Pueblo Luis B. Sanchez. And over to the left the university students from Hermosillo planted those,” Juan said. He continued pointing to specific trees. “See that tall cottonwood, the very green, healthy one? I planted that one. Katan,” – Juan’s son – “planted that one. And this one here, the sickly one, where the leaves are falling off. Alex planted that one.” Juan looked over at Alex, and gave a hearty laugh.

The tour stopped briefly at the nearby farm of the Patiño family, a cluster of adobe buildings and greenhouses bathed in the shade of numerous planted trees. In the Patiño’s greenhouses and sheds seedlings for Pronatura’s restoration projects are cultivated from seeds and cuttings. As Alex explained to Dos Aguas the various greenhouses and plant groups – willow, tornillo mesquite, cottonwood – three generations of the Patiños gathered around in the shade of a ramada: father, mother, son, and, playing across the fence, grandson. The irrigation ditch gurgled at the edge of the neighboring field, running through a cement gate and between the parcels to the waiting crops.

José, the family elder, seated himself in his walker/chair, and regaled all with stories from his youth in Michoacán. His eyes danced with the vivid memories – old mines, hidden or buried treasure, schemes to get rich – and his new audience. His wife stood by his side, smiling and occasionally teasing. Son Héctor listened quietly next to Juan. Grandson Patiño, perhaps three years old, played by himself, oblivious to the stories. When the grandson opened the gate to the yard, and walked out toward the ditch, Juan watched every move of the child. He had one ear on José’s stories, but his focus was on the boy.

“Does your boy play outside the yard often?” Juan asked Héctor, the child’s father.

Héctor turned to look into the yard. “He usually stays close to the house,” he answered.

“You should watch him with much care,” Juan said, turning to face Héctor. “Our village lost a young boy in such an acequia. It was many years ago, but I’ll never forget it. The boy wandered off by himself, probably following the chickens. He must have fallen in the water near the house, but no one heard him. It wasn’t a big ditch, mostly shallow, like this one. It doesn’t seem dangerous, especially to us adults who are used to jumping over the water. They found his body down at the next gate, where it is deeper. It is a tragedy you never forget.”

Wednesday AM: Irrigation Run-off at Ciénega de Santa Clara
Alex and I pulled into Ejido Johnson from San Luis shortly after 8 am. Juan’s yard, scattered with lumber, buckets, a wood range, firewood, and the Pronatura Suburban, was guarded by one dog and many chickens. Juan crouched over the table under his ramada holding a circuit board, wearing a jacket over a sweatshirt against the morning chill.

[+]Ejido Luis Encinas Johnson…

“Have you had coffee? The water is still hot,” he said, pointing to the wood range.

Magdalena, Juan’s wife, came out from the dark kitchen, smiling. With her help Alex and Dos Aguas assembled cups and spoons, mixed Nescafé into the hot water, pulled chairs to the table. As soon as all sat down, chilled fingers wrapped around the warm cups, Magdalena offered tortillas. “The tortillas are here,” she patted a warmed stack wrapped in cloth, “and the frijoles are on the stove in the kitchen. Help yourself.”

Juan continued with his circuit board. “I can’t find any soldering wire,” he said. Instead, on a discarded board he was warming old joints with the soldering iron and scraping bits of solder into a heap on the corner of the board. The goal was to repair a loose connection in Magdalena’s radio.

“There are bees in your water bucket,” Dos Aguas said to Juan. “Does someone in the Ejido keep bees?”

“My father-in-law has colonies in cesto,” Juan said – in baskets – “not in boxes. I keep a stick in the water so they won’t drown, but they insist on drinking from the plastic sides. Many fall in. We try to save as many as we can.”

Coffee drained, tortillas eaten, radio fixed, Juan, Alex and Dos Aguas climbed into the Suburban for the drive to Ciénega de Santa Clara and Ejido Johnson’s camp on its shore. The road heads south then turns east, crossing a levee into barren mudflats. In only a few kilometers from the Ejido the world has transformed into blankness: utterly empty fields with the southeast wind pushing long ridges of sand across ruts in the road.

Mudflats leading to Ciénega de Santa Clara (Rick Bowman)

Mudflats leading to Ciénega de Santa Clara (Rick Bowman)


On this November day the campground was empty, no campers, no renters in the cabañas, no tourists or hunters on the water. Alex, Juan and Dos Aguas walked out to the end of the pier, past the half dozen wooden boats tied alongside. On both sides the reeds stood taller than any person, crowded together wherever the water would support them. A steady breeze pushed from behind, from the west. Clear water stretched out beyond the pier, extending fingers to either side into the reeds. An occasional bird flew over – coots, rails, even a mallard – but mostly they were heard calling from within the reeds. Juan identified each one in turn. “Pato Cucharón Norteño.” Northern Shoveler. “Cerceta Castaña.” Cinnamon Teal. …

“At first I was opposed to allow hunting here, on the Ejido’s lands,” Juan said. “Mexican law permits hunting for some species, even here in The Reserve.” (The Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve.) “Hunters are allowed a limited number of the plentiful birds – Snow Geese, Cinammon Teal, Northern Pintail, Mallard… But then I realized that those who hunt are going to do it somewhere, whether we allow it or not. I decided it would be better to guide them and have some say in enforcing the limits. So our guides stay with the hunters all the time. We tell them, ‘this Snow Goose you can kill, on that Teal you already have your limit, and that Yuma Clapper Rail is prohibited.’”

The reach of water at Ciénega de Santa Clara. (Rick Bowman)

The reach of water at Ciénega de Santa Clara. (Rick Bowman)

[+]Ciénega de Santa Clara…

From twenty feet above the sand along the Ciénega de Santa Clara, in the campground’s observation tower, the view north to the flat horizon is divided into green and brown. Green on the right – several thousand acres of cattails and giant bulrushes scraping against each other in the wind, interrupted by pools of sparkling open water. And brown on the left, bare dirt with almost constant blowing sand, where miles of bare mudflats remain uncultivated since the owners have no irrigation rights which can reach these parcels. The line between green and brown is drawn on the landscape as clearly as an elevation contour on the map.

The river once rushed through and over this land, carrying silt and debris, creating whirlpools against the changing riverbed, sustaining not only acres of marshes but also miles of trees, willows and cottonwoods and mesquite. The Colorado once put up with river steamboats pushing up and down these channels, burning wood from its banks and flats, bringing men and equipment to divert its waters. But now that river and the life it supported have all but disappeared.

From the observation tower the Sea of Cortéz is visible to the south as a blue haze on the horizon. At high tide it pushes partway up the old riverbeds, slowly and quietly now rather than as el burro, the northbound wall of water created in the old days when the steady river current opposed the tide. From the ground Juan whistles and points to an osprey gliding above the cattails.

Wednesday PM: Waste Water at Las Arenitas

Las Arenitas Treatment Plant and Wetland in 2012 (Courtesy Sonoran Institute)

Las Arenitas Treatment Plant and Wetland in 2012 (Courtesy Sonoran Institute)

[+]Las Arenitas…

The dirt road led east from the San Felipe highway, away from the mountains across mostly barren flats. In less than two kilometers Juan pulled the big Suburban up to the yellow pole at a guard’s hut and rolled down the window. There was no other traffic on the gravel road, no sound of machinery from the surrounding desert, no music playing, and for a few moments no guard. Then a young man stepped out of the small hut in a dark-colored uniform with badges on each sleeve, a clipboard in his hand, a full head of black hair slicked back off his face. He crossed in front of the truck to the driver’s window, staring down at the Pronatura logo on the door.

Buenos dias,” the guard said.

Buenos dias. I thought no one was here, or you were asleep,” Juan teased.

“There is always someone here,” the guard said. “If the next shift doesn’t come, we have to continue working.”

“We are with Pronatura Noroeste,” Juan offered, nodding down to the logo on the door. “We’ve come to check on the reforestation plots.” He looked directly at the guard. “We will enter on this side, make the full circle,” Juan continued, making a spiral in the air with his hand, “and come out on the other road.”

“What is your name?”

“Juan Butrón.” He paused while the guard looked over his list. “We work with the Sonoran Institute. You probably see their vehicles more often.”

“Yes, they are on the list. Tell me your name again.”

“Juan Butrón Méndez, from Pronatura.”

“Are you a Méndez from around here?”

“I live in Ejido Johnson, just across the border in Sonora, but I’ve been in the valley my whole life,” replied Juan.

“My wife is a Méndez,” volunteered the guard.

“We have relatives over in Guadalupe Victoria. My father was a Yaqui,” said Juan. The guard had a blank look on his face. “Do you know about the Yaqui?”

“No,” said the guard.

“Did you finish your schooling?”

“Yes, I completed secondary school.”

“Then you should know about the Yaqui. It’s part of your heritage. You should read here in the hut.” There was no reply. “Pues, we’re probably connected somehow. Don’t forget to write me on your list, pariente.” Relative. “Butrón, Pronatura.”

Annotated Satellite Image of Las Arenitas Treatment Facility (Courtesy Edgar Carrera, Univ Autónoma de Baja California)

Annotated Satellite Image of Las Arenitas Treatment Facility (Courtesy Edgar Carrera, Univ Autónoma de Baja California)


The truck circled the marsh along the sandy embankments, windows open to the acrid air from the rectangular settling ponds and to the bird calls within and across the reeds, weaving through the border of plants along the water – poplar, sweet mesquite, creosote, cachanilla (a local plant which thrives in arid and saline conditions). And then Juan stopped at the marsh exit, where the water runs through a narrow channel, over a cement embankment, and disappears into a pipe in the ground. Somewhere across the sand to the south it empties into the Hardy River. On the narrow bridge over the channel a barrel of chlorine was perched in the gravel, a plastic spout reaching out over the stream of water. The nozzle was turned off.

Alex walked to the edge of the lagoon, here the southern edge of cell number 3. We’d seen coots floating and flying, but the nearby water was empty of birds. Standing near the water, with the cattails growing right up to her feet, Alex began to imitate the short whistle of the Sora Rail – lips stretched, teeth open slightly, tongue curled. “Err-ee. Err-ee.” A slow, rising crescendo with a sharp flourish at the finish. No answer. Then she made the long Sora whinny – a descending series of staccato bursts, loud at the beginning, slowing at the end – and returned to the short call. At last there was an answer, seemingly from the patch of reeds up against the bank.

“Keep calling!” Juan said to Alex, as he stepped closer to the water. “Keep going!” The answer came again. “I can’t tell if it’s here, or across the channel. Call again.”

Juan and Alex animated each other on the shore of Las Arenitas, slight musky odor in the air, yellow beaks hidden somewhere in the reeds. They decided there were two answers, one at Juan’s feet, another across the small channel. “Err-ee. Err-ee.”

In the truck on the road out Juan began to sing, humming the guitar chords when he could.

Yo soy puro Cachanilla, lo digo sin pretensión.
Soy de Baja California, norteño de corazón.

I’m a true Cachanilla, I tell you without vanity.
I’m from Baja California, a northerner at heart.

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