Will the Colorado River Delta’s Green Lagoons Ever Return?

Kevin Fedarko reflects on Aldo Leopold and the historic pulse flow

A historic pulse flow moving its way across the dry Colorado River Delta, part of a binational agreement for restoration.
A historic pulse flow moving its way across the dry Colorado River Delta, part of a binational agreement for restoration. Photo by Pete McBride

By Kevin Fedarko

"A wilderness … is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." – The Wilderness Act of 1964

If the Wilderness Act is the body of law that is designed to protect a portion of the American landscape in something approaching its primeval state, the essence of that law—its poetic and spiritual heart—is found not in the Act itself, but within a diminutive collection of essays written by an assistant district forester named Aldo Leopold who died in 1948, a year before his book could be published.

On the literary landscape of conservation, few things loom larger than A Sand CountyAlmanac, which belongs to a handful of seminal works that have helped to fundamentally shape our attitudes about the natural world, stewardship, and people's relationship to the terrain they inhabit. Those ideas were initially enshrined within New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, which Leopold spent many years observing, and which later became the first stretch of country in the world to receive ironclad legal protection from incursion by industrial machines. In the years since, a host of other wilderness areas—more than 800 in total—have been established, from Denali in Alaska and the tropical rainforests of Puerto Rico to the volcanoes of Hawaii.

Like the Gila itself, many of those places encompass terrain that is rugged, mountainous, and all but inaccessible, qualities that are often perceived as synonymous with (and perhaps necessary to) the idea of true wilderness. And so it is worth noting that perhaps the most beautiful and certainly the most elegiac pages of Leopold's Almanac are devoted not to a pristine range of snow-clad peaks that have miraculously been preserved intact, but to a hot reach of river running through a flat stretch of desert that we have all but irrevocably destroyed.

"The Green Lagoons," which comprises only nine pages of the Almanac, is dedicated to the Delta of the Colorado River—more than two million acres of wetlands that once comprised one of the greatest desert aquatic ecosystems on Earth. It was also, the author noted in the very first sentence, a place to which he refused to return after he and his brother first explored it by canoe in 1922.

"It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness," he declared. "To return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory. It is only in the mind that shining adventure remains forever bright."

A wise man, Leopold.

The landscape that greeted them seemed as fresh and untrammeled as the day that the conquistador Hernando de Alarcón had sailed into the mouth of the Colorado from the Sea of Cortéz in the summer of 1540. So pristine and untouched was the Delta that during the weeks that the brothers spent paddling their canoe toward Alarcón's estuary, they failed to spot so much as a single man, cow, or ax-cut—although many other things of wonder abounded within what Leopold called "a hundred miles of lovely desolation," a vast, flat bowl in which the Colorado "was nowhere and everywhere" because it could not decide which of a hundred passages offered "the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf."

As the brothers followed suit, they slid silently past the citizens of this watery republic: vast colonies of egrets and cormorants, avocets and mallards, widgeon and teal, as well as countless bobcats and coyotes and raccoons and deer. They missed only el tigre, the elusive and invisible jaguar whose ghostly presence, Leopold wrote, seemed to haunt the wilderness through which they floated.

Each dawn was whistled in by Gambel quail, which they spotted roosting in the overhanging mesquite. At dusk, they watched the sun disappear behind the Sierra San Pedro Mártir while basking in the blue fragrance of their campfire, then gazed upward into the emerging canopy of stars. Across the arc of the entire journey through the Delta toward the sea, they marveled over the sheer fecundity of the landscape. While the mudflats were covered with wild calabasilla melons, the game and the fish were of incredibly fatness. It was a world richer and more alive than any they had ever encountered.

"All of this was far away and long ago," Leopold wrote in one of his concluding sentences, words that captured his sense of longing for an experience that he could retrace only in memory. And he was right to frame his thoughts in this manner. Because not only the terrain but the river itself was destined for oblivion.

The dry Colorado River Delta before the pulse flow.  Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris
The dry Colorado River Delta, 2012. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris

During the half-century which followed the brothers' golden odyssey, the Colorado was transformed from a living river into something that more closely resembles plumbing. By the 1970s, the Bureau of Reclamation had erected a phalanx of nineteen major dams and reservoirs stretching from the southern Rockies to the Mexican border. No river in the western hemisphere was more rigorously controlled, more stringently regulated, or more ruthlessly overused. And none was so thoroughly exploited that, according to one set of calculations, every drop of water in the river was used and reused seventeen times—a claim that achieved a rather surreal dimension of impressiveness (or absurdity, depending on one's point of view) since, in all but the wettest years since the Glen Canyon Dam began impounding water in 1963, the final remnants of the Colorado have dried up in the desert before reaching the Sea of Cortéz.

The impact of all of this on the world that Leopold portrayed in his Almanac was almost beyond description. By the 1980s, the Green Lagoons had vanished. The riotous thickets of mesquite and the thick carpeting of calabasillas, the endless skeins of water birds, the slow-moving sheets of emerald-colored water—all of it was gone, nothing more than a distant memory, and what replaced those things was less of a wilderness and more properly described as a wasteland. Where so much life had once flourished, now there was only emptiness, silence, and the reproaching testimony of the sun-shattered ground that had once formed the floor of the Delta.

The fissures of that floor, which radiated southward in a fractured mosaic that extended all the way to the sea, seemed to offer a kind of cracked coda to the haunting paragraph with which Leopold's ended his tribute to that lost world:

"Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank space on the map?"

The delta from the air during the pulse flow, 2014. Photo by Pete McBride
The delta from the air during the pulse flow release, 2014. Photo by Pete McBride

At the center of the Act that Leopold's work inspired there rests the notion that blank spaces on the map are worth preserving because they offer something of value—an enrichment to the human spirit that we find vital and necessary. A corollary of that idea is that preservation and protection are necessary because wilderness is fragile—a thing that cannot stand up to the mechanized forces of industrialization.

While that is largely true, the notion of fragility fails to do justice to the paradox presented by wilderness's other great defining attribute, which is its resiliency. It can all too easily be killed; and yet, under the right conditions, it demonstrates a remarkable flair for resurrecting itself. And oddly, there is perhaps no more graphic or hopeful testament to that notion than the Delta itself.

Earlier this spring, thanks to a landmark agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, the gates of the Morelos Dam on the Arizona-Mexico border were lifted to allow a shot of water known as a "pulse flow" to enter the final 70 miles of the Colorado River. The pulse lasted only eight weeks, and the total amount of water it injected into the Delta amounted to just over 105,000 acre-feet, less than one percent of the river's annual flow prior to the dams.

Had he been there to witness it, Leopold would have been justified in noting that it was a faint and pale shadow of the thing he had once known and marveled. But to those who saw the leading edge of that water emerge from the base of the dam, just a few minutes after 8 a.m. on the morning of March 23, and stood watching as it slowly found its way through the sandy river bed, glinting in the sunlight, it was a thing of wonder. Within hours, the returning river was healing the cracks, greening the banks, and ushering in an orgy of birdsong and insects.

It was not wilderness as much as the possibility of wilderness. Which, when viewed from a certain angle, can sometimes seem even more precious than the thing itself.

For in the end, what can be more inspiring than bearing witness to the unlikely truth that although we may choose never to return to a place of wonder and magic, with just a little stewardship and care, it may decide to return to us?

This story first appeared in the July 2014 “Wilderness Issue” of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.

Read about C&K editors paddling the Colorado River Delta pulse flow to the sea.

Read C&K’s news story covering the Colorado’s first connection with the sea in decades.

C&K team paddling the pulse flow in the Colorado River Delta, May 2014. Photo by Zak Podmore
C&K team paddling the pulse flow in the Colorado River Delta, May 2014. Photo by Zak Podmore