Rachel Nuwer via Take Part
In 1922 the conservationist Aldo Leopold canoed through a lush, verdant delta full of green lagoons, darting fish and squawking waterfowl. But Leopold’s “milk and honey wilderness,” where the Colorado River empties into Mexico’s Gulf of California, ceased to exist decades ago. In its stead, a cracked, barren mudflat stretches for miles.
“If we choose, we can have healthy rivers alongside healthy economies,” Postel said. “We don’t have to be running our rivers dry.”
“This amazing place does not exist anymore,” said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and freshwater fellow of the National Geographic Society. “A lot was lost.”
Ten major dams — from the Hoover Dam, erected in 1936, to the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966 — block the flow of the Colorado River. Countless towns and industries siphon water from the river and its many tributaries as it meanders to the sea. Today the Colorado River joins the likes of the Indus, the Rio Grande, the Nile and other major world rivers that are so over-tapped they no longer reach the sea for long stretches of time. “This is one of America’s iconic rivers,” Postel said. “I don’t think this country would be the one we know today without the Colorado.”
It does not have to be this way, however. A restoration and outreach effort called Change the Course seeks to return the river to the sea. To pursue this goal, the National Geographic Society, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and Participant Media teamed up and pooled their expertise — science, social media, storytelling and policy — to change the fate of the once-mighty Colorado River.
A key to the campaign’s potential success rests on reversing more than 100 years of water use along the river. Since the mid-1800s, the Colorado River’s water was legally divided amongst farmers, landowners and ranchers along its course. Then, in the 1920s, seven states in the Colorado basin were allowed to divert additional water for cities, agriculture and industry. The result: more people have rights to divert water than the river has water to supply.
The clincher, however, is this: water rights holders have to “use it or lose it.” If a stakeholder does not divert his allocated amount of water from the river each year, he may lose those rights.
Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit based in Portland, seized upon this idea.