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Endangered Colorado: Is it Too Late to Save One of Our Greatest Rivers?

What once was a majestic river is today a saline slurry, with a salt content so high it cannot be used to water even the most hardy of garden plants. What have we done?


The following excerpt is from River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado by Wade Davis, © 2013 Wade Davis. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

"Man always kills the things 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 spot on the map?" —Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

In 1922, having completed work on the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, Aldo Leopold, along with his younger brother, set out by canoe to explore the mouth of the mighty Colorado. At the time the main flow of the Colorado reached the sea, carrying with it each year millions of tons of silt and sand and so much fresh water that the river’s influence extended some forty miles into the Gulf of California. The alluvial fan of the delta spread across two million acres, well over three thousand square miles, a vast riparian and tidal wetland the size of the state of Rhode Island. It was one of the largest desert estuaries on earth. Off shore, nutrients brought down by the river supported an astonishingly rich fishery for bagre and corvina, dolphins, and the rare and elusive vaquita porpoise, the world’s smallest marine cetacean. At the top of the food chain was the totoaba, an enormous relative of the white sea bass that grew to three hundred pounds, spawned in the brackish waters of the estuary and swarmed in the Sea of Cortez in such abundance that even fishermen blinded in old age, it was said, had no difficulty striking home their harpoons.

In contrast to the searing sands of the Sonoran Desert through which the lower Colorado flowed, and the blue and barren hills of the Sierra de los Cucapás, cradling the river valley to the north and west, the delta was lush and fertile, a “milk and honey wilderness,” as Leopold called it, of marshes and emerald ponds with cattails and wild grasses yielding to the wind, and cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite trees overhanging channels where the water ran everywhere and nowhere, as if incapable of settling upon a route to the sea. The river, wrote Leopold, “could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the gulf. So he travelled them all, and so did we. He divided and rejoined, he twisted and turned, he meandered in awesome jungles, he all but ran in circles, he dallied with lovely groves, he got lost and was glad of it, and so were we.”

Drifting with the ebb and flow of the tides, waking by dawn to the whistles of quail roosting in the branches of mesquite trees, making camp on mudflats etched with the tracks of wild boar, yellowlegs, and jaguar, the Leopold brothers experienced the Colorado delta much as had the Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcón, who first reached its shores in 1540. There were bobcats draped over cottonwood snags. Deer, raccoons, beavers, and coyotes, and flocks of birds so abundant they darkened the sky. Avocets and willets, mallards, widgeons, and teals, scores of cormorants, screaming gulls, and so many egrets on the wing that Leopold compared them in flight to “a premature snowstorm.” He wrote of great phalanxes of geese sideslipping toward the earth, falling like autumn leaves. On every shore he saw clapper rails and sandhill cranes, and overhead, doves and raptors scraping the sky.

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