The Colorado River has Reached the Sea
C&K team rides Pulse Flow to tidewater
By Jeff Moag
From the start of the Colorado River Pulse Flow on March 23, the overriding question has been whether the water will reach the sea. Five paddlers answered that question in the affirmative on May 8.
The team bashed three kayaks and a canoe through a shallow brush-choked channel, and observed Colorado River surface water flowing into the Tapon #2 waterway, which joins the Gulf of California.
Joining the Canoe & Kayak magazine expedition was Dr. Jorge Ramirez, a hydrologist with the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California. Ramirez is one of the architects of the Pulse Flow, a bi-national accord to release water into the river delta in order to revive its delicate but resilient ecology. Ramirez directs the team of researchers measuring the pulse flow’s results.
Ramirez observed water flowing at a rate of about 2 meters per second (70 cfs) from the Colorado River pilot channel into the Tapon #2 channel, part of the Rio Hardy system in the lower Colorado delta. It’s not much water, but it does settle the question. For the first time since at least 1997, we know for certain that the Colorado River has reached the sea.
“It was a very emotional moment for me to see the Colorado River surface water entering the Rio Hardy system,” said Ramirez, whose first day in a canoe included five hours of bushwhacking through tamarisk thickets and a final two-hour push by moonlight.
“Now we can be sure that the Colorado River is communicating with the Hardy River and the Gulf of California,” Ramirez said.
Water from the Colorado River sustains agriculture, industry and cities throughout the American Southwest. The water is divided by treaty among seven U.S. States and Mexico, which by treaty receives 9.1 percent of the river’s annual flow. In normal years, all of that allocation is shunted into irrigation canals at the border, leaving the Colorado River a ribbon of parched sand overgrown with tamarisk. The river hasn’t consistently reached the sea in nearly 30 years, since the high-water springs of 1984 and 1985.
What little water reaches the sea does so via the Rio Hardy, a meandering trail of wetlands and shallow tidal mudflats fed by irrigation runoff. The Rio Hardy meets the Gulf of California about 15 river miles below the Tapon #2 channel, where Dr. Ramirez and the C&K team observed surface water from the Colorado River flowing into the channel.
The five person team included Baja California native Victor Leon and Zak Podmore, a C&K contributing editor who paddled the Colorado from source to sea in 2011 and 2012. C&K editor Jeff Moag and videographer Todd Lynch, who paddled the upper delta with Leon in April rounded out the group.
Podmore’s January 2012 delta crossing with Will Stauffer-Norris included more than 100 miles by irrigation canal and on foot, including plenty of difficult bushwhacking. The crux of this descent was shorter—the team portaged only 60 meters—but presented its own challenges.
“I’ve just bulldozed through the thickest tamarisk I’ve ever seen, with fully loaded kayaks and a two-man canoe,” Podmore said as the paddlers battered through a final cordon of underbrush to reach the clear Tapon #2 channel. With the sun setting and the thicket humming with mosquitoes, the crew elected to continue paddling under the light of a crescent moon. They camped five miles downstream at a small earthen dam. On May 9 they continued another 15 miles to the Sonoran Institute monitoring station some five miles upstream of the river mouth.
The tides on May 9 were too small to cross the large sandbar at the mouth of the river. That will happen Thursday afternoon when a 5.17-meter spring tide will rush up from the Gulf and complete the connection with the Colorado River.