Colorado River Meets the Sea After 16 Years

Part of ecological revitalization project

As much as you love the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, its dam is likely responsible for environmental destruction south of the border. (Courtesy of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area)

Monica Lewinsky isn't the only 1998 throwback to recently make headlines. For the first time since that glorious year, when Harry Potter stole our hearts and Britney Spears invaded the airwaves, the Colorado River has reached its natural destination in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. 

The reunion between the river and the sea stems from an agreement, named Minute 319, between Mexico and the United States establishing a five-year restoration of the Colorado Delta, where the river flows into the Sea of Cortez. 

Before humans got in the way, the delta's nutrient-rich freshwater and the gulf's saltwater blended to create an optimal environment for many types of aquatic life, including the gulf corvina, totoaba, brown and blue shrimp, and the endangered vaquita, the world's smallest porpoise. But Americans constructed northern Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, and since then the river has rarely reached the delta. 

El Nino weather events have brought heavy snow and rain to the Rockies that helped flood the delta, but otherwise the area has remained mostly dry. The United States and Mexico hope to change that in order to revitalize a region that once featured two million acres of flourishing wetlands.

On March 23, authorities lifted the gates of the Morelos Dam, which rests on the Arizona-Mexico border, allowing a "pulse flow" of water into the southern leg of the Colorado River. Scientists designed the pulse flow to mimic natural springtime snow melts and timed it to coincide with the germination of native trees. They didn't expect the flow to travel all the way to the gulf but are pleased it has.

Minute 319's waterflow is minute compared to how the river once flowed prior to human intervention, amounting to less than one percent of its historic volume. That's still more than has been coursing through the region over the past few decades, and nature never had science timing ice melts to optimize interaction with flora and fauna.

The agreement extends through 2017, but authorities have already discussed an extension. One can only assume these positive results will increase the chances of such a decision.

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