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Deceptively Beautiful With A Hint Of Hope

Paul Nicklen

As we soar 3,000 feet above some of the most beautiful patterns I have ever seen in nature, I am reminded that here is one of the greatest rivers ever to exist, and it no longer makes it to the sea.

It is a story repeated throughout the West. About half the western US’s water supply originates on national forest land, but much of that water is diverted before it reaches the Colorado River. Industrial farms, cattle ranches, housing developments and heavy industry all take their toll.

The Colorado delta was once one of the most bountiful estuaries in North America, but today very little of that water meets the Gulf of California, known in Mexico as the Sea of Cortez. The delta where the river meets the sea supported a unique, Eden-like garden teeming with myriad forms of life, interconnected and intertwined, all part of a unique and diverse ecosystem.

When the environmentalist Aldo Leopold explored the river’s delta in Mexico nearly a century ago, he was overwhelmed by the sight of “a hundred green lagoons.” The river was a haven for birds and mammals in the Sonoran desert, but these are harder to find. As dams and irrigation projects divert more and more water to towns and cities upriver, the river’s course has changed.

There is beauty here. Rising coastal tides of up to 10 feet stretch inland to create a lacework of delicate patterns of rock and sediment that, viewed from the air, almost literally take my breath away. Layers of sandstone, siltstone and mudstone, deposited millions of years ago, blend as one to form a living painting of fine-grained reds, mauves and violets. It is hard for me to view this and not feel a connection with nature that is all-encompassing, and yet at the same time I am reminded that this is a terrible beauty. It should not look like this. It should not be like this. It is during moments like these that I feel an urgent need to protect what remains of one of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes.

Last summer brought a record heatwave in the middle of a decades-long drought that scientists have now named the Millennium Drought. As temperatures rise, it takes more rain to produce the same amount of runoff. Chronic overuse of the river, coupled with drought and hot temperatures caused by global heating, have reduced the river to a trickle of its former self.

Lake Powell, the US’s second-largest man-made lake, can hold up to 26 million acre-feet of water and supplies drinking water to three states: California, Arizona and Nevada. The lake has dropped 140 feet in depth since 2000, though, and has fallen by 50 feet in just the past year.

The journal Science recently described the intense dry spell in the West as the worst ‘megadrought’ in 1,200 years. The Colorado River dropped 20% more in the first 14 years of the 21st century than it dropped during the previous 100 years.

The Colorado River used to carry vast amounts of sediment containing life-giving nutrients that feed into the Sea of Cortez and helped sustain, among other species, the critically endangered vaquita, a porpoise endemic to the Sea of Cortez.

Researchers track records dating back hundreds of years by studying tree rings. They have found that periodic droughts in the West are often connected to shifts in ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific. These shifts affect air-circulation patterns and block storms from reaching the western US mainland. Naturally-occurring oscillations in sea-surface temperatures keep the West dry, and now there’s climate change to contend with as well.

As I look at this eye-filling mural of nature’s splendor, my mind is constantly distracted by some new wonder. Somewhere down there, the river is still flowing. We must not underestimate the Colorado River’s economic importance, but it is the river’s natural beauty that always touches my soul at the deepest level. The river’s inability to complete its journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez has become one of its defining features. The winds of time are changing not just the river’s course but the ecology of the entire region. No one, not even the scientists, can predict with any certainty how this story will end.

Recent water-conservation agreements between the US and Mexico show signs of promise, and parts of the river are flowing again in the delta. This is a good sign, because much of the river has not flowed in the delta since the 1960s. It is not yet too late. I cling to that thought every waking moment.

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