Colorado River Pulse Flow Deemed a Success

Imperiled delta shows signs of greening

Dec 23, 2014
Outside Magazine
colorado river sea of cortez pulse flow nature conservation outside

The pulse allowed the Colorado River to connect with the Sea of Cortez for the first time in years.    exoimperator/Flickr

The pulse flow, a planned initiative that sent a surge of water down the final stretch of the Colorado River, has been deemed a worthwhile venture by experts speaking this week at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.

Smithsonian reports that the surge of water from the Colorado River’s southernmost dam, which was opened for eight weeks in May 2014, has led to visible increases in vegetation in the arid region between Yuma, Arizona, and the Gulf of California, and may soon offer new habitat for migratory birds. The pulse flow was first initiated in 2012 as a means of reinvigorating vegetation along the river.

“The pulse reversed a 13-year decline in vegetation,” Pamela Nagler, of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Biological Science Center in Tucson, Arizona, told attendees at the San Francisco conference. Comparing aerial photographs between 2013 and 2014, Nagler and her colleagues observed a 43 percent increase in green vegetation in the wetted zone and a 23 percent increase along the river’s borders. Though it is too soon to tell, one expert at the conference said that birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory route in the western United States, will presumably benefit from the improved quality of life in the Colorado River Delta.

During the past 14 years of drought, the Colorado River Delta has been a living augury of the Colorado River and the ever-expanding swell of Southwesterners who depend on it. The thought of it going dry has loomed large not only for ecologists, farmers, and municipalities for whom it is the primary source of drinking water, but also for urban areas like Las Vegas, which have watched the steadily shrinking Lake Mead with trepidation.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. The New York Times reports that officials from Arizona, California, and Nevada signed an agreement at last week’s Colorado River Water Users Association that will jointly add as much as three million acre-feet of water to Lake Mead by 2020. The agreement, while not proposed as a permanent solution to the river’s allocation problems, has been taken as a good sign that states can cooperate.

“The fact of the matter is that we work together,” Chuck Cullom, the Colorado River programs manager for the Central Arizona Project, told the Times. “A direct and open conflict may create more risk and uncertainty than working collaboratively.”

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