Paddling the Colorado River Pulse Flow

Will the Colorado River finally reach the sea? And if it does, will it float a boat?

By Jeff Moag

An extraordinary experiment is underway in a parched corner of northern Mexico where the Colorado River goes to die.

There, a few miles below an unimposing edifice called the Morelos Dam, the waterway that carved the Grand Canyon finally succumbs to the last of many insults. The bulk of its flow is allocated, divided and sold before it reaches the Mexican border, some 100 river miles from the sea. The rest is diverted at Morelos Dam, shunted into irrigation canals that turn this arid landscape into Mexico’s richest agricultural region.

In 30 years, the Colorado River has reached the sea only a handful of times. The empty riverbed has become a desiccated reminder of what the river once was. Whether it can be brought back to life is the subject of that grand experiment, a binational conservation effort called the Colorado River Pulse Flow.

The pulse began on March 23, and before ending in May will put 105,000 acre-feet of water into the delta. That’s a little more than 34 billion gallons. It sounds like a lot, but it’s less than 1 percent of the water that historically flowed through the delta each year.

Nobody knows whether it will be enough.

Conservation groups, including the Sonoran Institute, The Nature Conservancy and the Mexican NGO Pronatura, worked for years to secure the release and pay for the water. Before the water could flow the United States and Mexico had to reach an accord, known as Minute 319, which is already being hailed as a model for international cooperation over shared rivers. It permits the conservation groups to purchase water from farmers who have not used their allocation. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation delivered the water from upstream reservoirs, as if the river’s lifeblood were a multi-million dollar pizza.

The conservationists hope the pulse will bring back the willows and cottonwoods that once lined the valley, and restore habitat for the birds and wildlife that once thrived there.

My goal was more selfish. I wanted to see whether I could bash through the non-native reeds and tamarisk that clog the riverbed, and eventually make it to the ocean. I figured I’d never get another chance.

My videographer friend Todd Lynch and Victor Leon, a sea kayaker from Ensenada Mexico, saw it the same way and rallied to join me in Northern Baja. We expected to find a parched desert, but there’s water everywhere in the delta—in irrigation canals that criss-cross the region, and puddled at the edge of farm fields. It’s in the cotton, wheat and alfalfa this valley is famous for producing. The water seemed to be everywhere but in the riverbed, which was covered in sand so dry it sucked the moisture out of my skin.

We started on the afternoon of March 31, expecting a mixture of paddling and bushwhacking. Todd and I paddled my red Royalex Old Town Discovery canoe. We wanted a boat we could easily stand in to look downstream, and that would be easy to heave over deadfall. Todd brought a machete, with the idea that he’d hack away in the bow while I pushed from the stern. Victor brought his P&H Hammer, a maneuverable sea kayak.

Victor Leon paddles the Colorado River pulse, March 31, 2014. Photo by Todd Lynch

Victor Leon paddles the Colorado River pulse, March 31, 2014. Photo by Todd Lynch

We put in on the back of the pulse, riding a flow of about 2,000 cubic feet per second. The river felt like a maze set down in the no-man’s land between the United States and Mexico. On river left we’d catch glimpses of the heavy steel border fence, and surveillance cameras on high masts.

The border should have put us on edge, but the river seemed to take us into its embrace. The pulse didn’t feel like an experiment; it felt like a river. It put us at ease.

Route-finding through flooded tamarisk forests was a challenge, but we followed the flow and the river always showed us a way through. We only had to backtrack twice, and the machete stayed sheathed. In five hours of paddling we covered nearly 20 miles, and slept on a broad sandbar. We weren’t sure what country we were in, but it was one of the finest river camps I’ve enjoyed in the last few years.

The next morning we paddled under the San Luis Bridge, into a section of river that scientists call “the hole.” Here irrigation wells have drained the water table to a depth of 45 feet. If you’ve ever poured a bucket of water onto a dry sand beach and watched it disappear, you understand the problem.

Water arrives at Vado de Carranza, a road crossing about 60 river miles below the Morelos Dam, on April 9. The red splotch is a garbage fire. Photo courtesy of the Sonoran Institute.

Water arrives at Vado de Carranza, a road crossing about 60 river miles below the Morelos Dam, on April 9. The red splotch is a garbage fire. Photo courtesy of the Sonoran Institute.

The river here was wider, the maze of tamarisk thicker. For a while we paddled in an arrow-straight pilot channel designed to speed the river on its course. We made great time, but when the channel offered an exit back into the floodplain, we took it. We knew we wouldn’t float out to the ocean, not this time anyway. The water was advancing more slowly than scientists had predicted, and nobody knew how much was still sinking into the sand.

We wanted to slow down and savor this rare experience, floating through a desert that had seen water only a handful of times in the last 30 years. In the end we traveled a little more than 40 miles, less than half the distance to the Gulf. But years of paddling have taught me never to underestimate a river, and the the Pulse Flow isn’t finished yet.

It will continue into May at a baseline level. In the coming weeks it will fill in the floodplains, rejuvenate the wetlands and, maybe, spill a few drops into the sea.

A family enjoys an impromptu beach day--and an unexpected boat ride--in the normally dry Colorado River delta. Photo by Jeff Moag

A family enjoys an impromptu beach day–and an unexpected boat ride–in the normally dry Colorado River delta. Photo by Jeff Moag

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