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September 1, 2014

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Colorado River close to reaching gulf for 1st time in decades

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Sam Morris / FILE

The Colorado River, which is the main source of water for Southern Nevada, winds past Willow Beach, Ariz.

PHOENIX — Water conservationists are celebrating a flood experiment that is on the verge of sending water from the Colorado River to the Sea of Cortez for the first time in more than 20 years.

The water has traveled nearly 100 miles from a barren delta at the Morelos Dam just south of where California, Arizona and Mexico meet. It was a result of a bi-national agreement that came together after years of negotiations.

As of Thursday morning, the water was about 2 river miles from the sea.

Enough water to supply over 200,000 homes for a year was released on March 23 in an effort to revive trees, wildlife and aquatic life that have perished since the delta dried up decades ago. The one-time release has an official end date of May 18.

Water has not regularly flowed into the Sea of Cortez in more than 50 years. In 1983, floods sent water down to the ocean and another flood a decade later also dramatically increased the flow.

Conservationists say it'll be years before they see the environmental effects of the water streaming through, but residents in the town of San Luis Rio Colorado in the Mexican state of Sonora have been frolicking in the water and gathering at the river ever since the flow started.

"Maybe the more immediate impact was the story of the communities coming back to their river which had been missing for so long, and kids coming to see the river that they have never seen before," said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Project.

Seven U.S. states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, rely on the Colorado River for water. So do the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora.

But for years, communities in Mexico where the river flows through have not seen a drop of water.

It's a feat that the water released in March has continued to flow, said Sally Spener, a spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission.

"The fact that the water is getting to areas where intended and is getting well downstream when we weren't sure it was going to make it that far is, again, exciting for a lot of people," Spener said.

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