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Press Release

Op-Ed: International Diplomacy Sets New Course for the Colorado River

Published on Wed, Nov 21, 2012 (8:27 a.m.)

U.S.-Mexico water relations to revitalize dry river delta, create more resilient framework for the future

by David Festa and Martin Gutiérrez

In a momentous agreement, the United States and Mexico have come together to restore water to the delta of the Colorado River, beginning the work to rejoin North America’s iconic river to the Sea of Cortez. This victory comes after more than a decade of using up so much of the river’s natural flows that the river’s delta – once teeming with water and wildlife – has dried up.

Amidst a diminishing supply and pressing demand for water, the seven U.S. states sharing the Colorado River began making adjustments to adopt sustainable water management as the large reservoirs that store more than four years of the river’s flow began to empty. Following an innovative shortage sharing arrangement involving water saved up in Lake Mead, the two countries have agreed to begin implementing restoration of river flows that will impact more than 100 miles of river from Arizona to Mexico and reconnect the Colorado River to the Sea. This is a first and critical step in re-hydrating the Colorado River delta. It also fits in with other steps both sides are taking. For example, communities that years ago began the process of restoring their riverfronts by clearing non-native scrub and planting native trees can now look forward to seeing the fruits of their hard work as the restored flows revitalize their old channels in the years ahead. With the return of flows comes the promise not just of ecological productivity, but also of a rebirth of tourism providing communities with new economic opportunities.

This integration of human and ecosystem goals in an international agreement can become a model for international environmental policy. As a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands, the Colorado River delta promises to provide a wealth of scientific information about restoring estuaries, creating opportunities for joint research ventures by international institutions, and the potential to apply lessons learned to some of the world’s other lost freshwater ecosystems. It also demonstrates that even in an over-allocated river system, water supplies can be found to secure or expand instream flows. It is a success story not just for the Colorado River, but for all other ecosystems looking to make a comeback.

Today’s agreement opens a new era in relations between the United States and Mexico – restoring the river’s delta while providing water supply reliability to farmers and cities on both sides of the border. This demonstration of cooperation can lead to a more resilient framework for managing the Colorado River in the future. In keeping with the novelty of this way of doing business, the agreement sunsets after five years, giving everyone involved a chance to examine what worked, and to revise and renew future commitments.

Aldo Leopold, a father of North American conservation, predicted the demise of the Colorado River’s delta following a visit he made back in 1922. He said he would never return to those green lagoons at the U.S.-Mexico border, as “it is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it.” Leopold wasn’t far off in his expectations of an altered ecosystem – a river run dry – but he never could have imagined a future in which two countries would come together to bring back the river he once knew and cherished.

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David Festa is Vice President for Land, Water, and Wildlife at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Martin Gutiérrez is the General Director of Pronatura México, a Mexican non-profit environmental organization established in 1981, whose mission is the conservation of the priority ecosystems of Mexico, promoting the development of society in harmony with nature.

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