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In the morning, we drive 50 miles south to the area where Zamora is working with colleagues in Mexico to improve habitat along the Hardy River, which flows into the Colorado. The water in the Hardy consists of irrigation-water drainage off farms in the Mexicali Valley, water that comes originally from the Colorado River to the north.
Along the river, we visit Campo Mosqueda, which farmer Jesus Mosqueda Gonzalez founded in 1953. It is a well-maintained camp with inviting-looking palapas that provide shade and a traditional-style central building made out of rustic brick that has a restaurant, bathrooms, a lounge and a patio. Both Mexicans and Americans come to the camp from spring through summer to enjoy boating, fishing and swimming, Gonzalez says.
However, lack of water turned into a problem, so residents along the Hardy built a dam by hand to retain water along their stretch of the river.
Gonzalez, a gray-haired man who now runs the camp with his sons, has seen the fish population decline in the Hardy and across the whole Colorado River Delta, and he blames the water allocations developed under the law of the river. “The delta is another user of water,” he says. “Deltas produce all the fish in the world. There should be water for the delta. But nobody thought that far ahead.”
Lack of fresh water flowing into the river delta has eliminated $2.4 billion a year in “ecological services,” according to Karl Flessa, a professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona. In what Flessa calls “pre-dambrian times,” shrimp, corvina and other species were supported by the brackish water created on the delta when abundant fresh water from the river mixed with the salty water of the ocean.
However, when the U.S. government filled Lake Powell in the 1960s, those fish declined along with the declining flow of fresh water. The lack of flow today makes it a struggle for the corvina to spawn in the increasingly salty waters of the delta, says Kristen Rowell, an aquatic biologist at the University of Washington who has studied fish habitat there.
We go up the river to El Mayor, a town of 200 families, mostly Cocopah Indians, and meet Andres Lopez Gonzalez, who is trying to eke out a living fishing the decimated corvina in this water-short land.
A plastic jug of drinking water sits outside the front door of his house in this dusty town where children play on unpaved streets. He rides down to the river with us to visit Don Onesimo, a Cocopah elder, and Juan Butron, an ejidofarmer who has traveled across the delta to join the group to work on a community river-restoration project.
Onesimo, 72, explains that the Cocopahs’ traditional way of life was to follow the river, eating fish, hunting, and gathering the natural vegetation found along its course. In more recent times, they have farmed and fished along the river, but it has been difficult due to the lack of fresh water and the infiltration of seawater far inland, which not only has killed off fish but has poisoned drinking-water wells, he says. He recalls that during his youth, in the 1940s, geese “clouded” the sky and brought Americans to hunt.
He rarely sees geese of late because the wetlands across the delta have dried up. “Even the desert vegetation is practically dead,” he says, pointing to the barren hills that rise to the west above El Mayor.
Butron fears that the U.S. will soon cut the flow of water from an agricultural drainage canal that supports one of the largest remaining wetlands on the delta, known as La Cienega de Santa Clara. It lies near his farming-collective community of Ejido John D. Johnson.
The U.S. is interested in treating the water in a largely idle desalination plant in Yuma and putting it into the river so it can count the water toward Mexico’s allotment of Colorado water. Right now, the water, which drains along a canal to the east of the river’s main course, does not count toward that allotment.
If the U.S. treats the salty irrigation runoff from Arizona, it will cut the water that flows to Mexico down the canal, killing the wetland.
Butron has been organizing people on both sides of the border to try to preserve the wetland. For his efforts, he won the $20,000 Michael S. Currier environmental-service award in 2005, which the New Mexico Community Foundation and North American Institute presented to him in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last December.
I drive with Zamora across the delta through Mexican farm towns to the main course of the Colorado River. We reach the bank of the river and drive across the levee to find the water. The mighty Colorado runs low here. We drive farther along the levee and see farms irrigated with river water. Some have patches of white salt on the surface of the soil. Vegetation along the river has been burned extensively in a fire of unknown origin. Salt cedar, an invasive bushy plant, dominates that bank of the river. There are few native cottonwood or willow trees.
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