Blogging mostly about mundane stuff like, immigration, Workers' Compensation and other immigrant related activities.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Unintended Consequences of a River

I read somewhere most of the future world conflicts will center around water, specifically who has access to it and who controls it, for as they say "Water is Life".

Since man has had the ability to claim water he has devised ways to store it for human use. The Colorado River has no less than 20 dams, before a drop reaches the Gulf of California on the Mexican side of the border.

State and counties that line the Colorado River have historically fought for what they deem their fair share of which. The Colorado Compact of 1922 set forth specific allotments of water. The agreement alloted water to the Upper Basin and Lower Basin States in equal amounts based on historical rainfall patterns.

The allotments were as follows:

Upper Basin, 7.5 million acre·ft/year (293 m³/s) total
Colorado 51.75% 3.88 million acre·ft/year (152 m³/s)
Utah 23.00% 1.73 million acre·ft/year (68 m³/s)
Wyoming 14.00% 1.05 million acre·ft/year (41 m³/s)
New Mexico 11.25% 0.84 million acre·ft/year (33 m³/s)
Arizona 0.70% 0.05 million acre·ft/year (2.0 m³/s)
Lower Basin, 7.5 million acre·ft/year (293 m³/s) total
California 58.70% 4.40 million acre·ft/year (172 m³/s)
Arizona 37.30% 2.80 million acre·ft/year (109 m³/s)
Nevada 4.00% 0.30 million acre·ft/year (12 m³/s)

Although the compact has been the focus of much criticism due to protracted decreases in rainfall for the region whatever water flows into the river is absorbed by thirsty states along its path. But, what happens to unrepresented communities at the end of the river. Mexico and more specifically the Cucapa Indians of Baja California were not taken into consideration when the compact was created, nor do they possess the means to fight back. So, how does a communities like the Cucapa seek justice and their fair share of a water.

The Cucapa of Baja California, Mexico are related to the Cocopah Indians of Arizona. The Cucapa currently struggle with a dwindling water supply that is unnatural. The Cucapa are not victims of any drought, they are merely victims of the insatiable thirst of Americans living in the Southwestern United States. They are a forgotten community, not given much consideration by a region that siphons 90% of the water that flows through the Colorado River.

The little water that does reaches the Cucapa can be seen as a trickle as it crosses the border as it attempts to reach the Golfo de California.

Map of the Colorado Watershed

For thousands of years, the Colorado River flowed unimpeded it's water released from deep snow packs some 9000 feet up into the Rocky Mountains. As snow melted the river was fed from cold water that cascades downward as it begins a 1450 mile journey that ends at the Gulf of California nestled between Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, just below California and Arizona.

The course the river takes begins in Wyoming, passes through Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and finally into the California Imperial Valley where it irrigates farmlands that have desiccated the lower course of the river in most of Mexico, so much of it's water taken that it no longer consistently reaches the sea.

From the Wikipedia article on the Colorado River:
The Colorado River is the major life-sustaining source of water for irrigation, drinking, and other uses by people living in the arid American Southwest regions of Las Vegas, Nevada, Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. Allocation of the river's water is governed by the Colorado River Compact. Several dams have been built along the Colorado River, beginning with Glen Canyon Dam near the Utah-Arizona border. Other dams include Hoover Dam, Parker Dam, Davis Dam, Palo Verde Diversion Dam, and Imperial Dam. Since the completion of the dams, the majority of the river in normal hydrologic years is diverted for agricultural and municipal water supply.

The Colorado's last drops evaporate in the Sonoran Desert, miles before the river reaches the Gulf of California. Almost 90% of all water diverted from the river is for irrigation purposes. The All-American Canal is the largest irrigation canal in the world and carries a volume of water from 15,000 to 30,000 ft³/s (420 to 850 m³/s), making it larger in volume than New York's Hudson River. The canal's waters are used to irrigate the parched but fertile Imperial Valley, where several years can pass between measurable rainfalls. Hydrology transport models are used to assess management of the river's flow and water quality.

Hoover Dam (originally Boulder Dam, and the first dam of its type) was completed in 1936. Its impoundment of the river in the Mojave Desert creates Lake Mead, which provides water for irrigation and the generation of hydroelectric power.

Several cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson have aqueducts leading all the way back to the Colorado River. One such aqueduct is the Central Arizona Project ("CAP") canal, which was begun in the 1970s and finished in the 1990s. The canal begins at Parker Dam and runs all the way to Phoenix and then Tucson to supplement those cities' water needs.

The Salton Sea:

For all intents and purposes the Salton Sea should not exist, yet it does because of our ability to tame nature. As the Colorado River flows down into California's Imperial Valley the river is actually higher than the valley, but for centuries it has been hemmed in by its own natural levees, natural land barriers on both of its banks that have built up over the years. The banks mostly made up of silt left behind by floods and with each flood the levees grew a bit higher and harder for the Colorado River to break through, but once in awhile the river would break out and pour down into an area known as the Salton Sink, partly filling it. Then the break would fill with silt, the river would revert to its normal channel and the Salton Sink would dry up once again.

Salton Sea
The Salton Sea was born from an accident in 1905. It was born during a flood in which the Colorado River broke through a half-finished head gate of an irrigation ditch flooding the basin. The river kept widening the ditch, until almost the entire river was flowing into the Salton Sink rather than toward s the Gulf of California. It flowed for some two years and it took engineers and work crews until 1907 to return the river to its proper course, by which by such time had formed a considerable lake that became the Salton Sea.

Historically the Imperial Valley had drawn European American settlers who saw good soils for agriculture in the area. The settlers only took exception that the soil was extremely dry. Thus, in 1901 a company began diverting water from the Colorado River into the valley for irrigation, imitating what the Colorado had done naturally thousands of times until that fateful year in 1905.

The Salton Sea has not become a giant agricultural sump, it is the result of the vast Imperial Valley farming region into which farmlands through natural topography water drains into. The water that drains from these farmlands into the Salton Sea introduces salts and other minerals such as phosphates. It's now believed that without the agriculture water draining into the sea, it would take some 96 years of evaporation in the extreme heat, temperatures reach over 100F for it to cease to exist.

map showing the relationship between the Salton Sea, Colorado River and the Gulf of California

Rebirth of La Cienga De Santa Clara:

The Cienga De Santa Clara is re-emerging marsh. It is a small part of the 100,000 acres of wetlands that once existed as the Colorado Rivers flowed into the Gulf of California. The wetlands have largely disappeared as water from the Colorado River is depleted. The marsh once surrounded most of the rivers path, as seen in the maps gray area along the blue line that marks the Colorado river as it ends in the Gulf of California below the US-Mexico border.

By the 1960s, agricultural runoff from US farms had made the little water that the Colorado River did flow to Mexico so salty that Mexican farmers could not use it to irrigate their crops. In the dry years, protests raged and famine loomed on the Mexican side of the border. Mexico threatened to take their case before the World Court and Mexican politicians pressured their northern neighbor to clean up its mess. The US in response authorized the construction of the Yuma Desalination Plant (YDP) a facility with an estimated costs of between $250-$400 Million US Dollars, that eventually broke ground in 1975, but the YDP was hobbled by budget cuts and the facility actually took some 17 years to complete.

The plant was mired in setbacks and except for an eight month period in 1992, the plant never operated. In the meantime the agricultural runoff kept streaming south into what is now a 12,000+ acre wetland. The water is too salty and unsuitable for crops, thus it does not meet the obligation for the United States' to provide Colorado River water to Mexico, as stipulated by the 1944 Water Treaty, agreed between the two countries, but cattails and other wetland plants as well as bird species don't know about border or treaties and didn't mind as some 120 billion liters of brackish wastewater nourished their parched soils.

Jeff Howe wrote about the YDP and La Cienga de Santa Clara for the November 2004 issue of Wired Magazine. His article is here and illustrates how the "law of unintended consequences" was instrumental in the re-birth of la Cienega de Santa Clara.

An excerpt from Jeff Howe's article:
Trickle-Down Hydronomics:

In 1974, the US agreed to build a desalination plant on banks of the Colorado River outside Yuma, Arizona. Thirty years and $250 million later, the plant is gathering dust, an utter failure - and a surprising success.

1. The Need

As US farmers irrigated their land, salt in the groundsoil began leaching into the Colorado River, causing contaminated water to flow over the border, devastating Mexican crops.

2. The Fix

In diplomatic talks with Mexico, the US promised to build a desal plant. The first step was to construct a bypass canal that would divert salty agricultural runoff before it entered the river. While the plant was under construction, the 53-mile canal would temporarily dump the water into the Mexican desert. Once the plant began running, farm runoff would be desalted then pumped back into the Colorado.

3. The Surprise

Except for one eight-month stretch starting in 1992, the plant never operated. The agricultural runoff, meanwhile, kept streaming south, creating a 12,000-acre wetland, now a biological preserve championed by environmental activists. Turn the plant on and the canal's flow would drop by two-thirds - and soar in salinity - destroying the habitat.

4. The Irony

Amid a five-year drought and calls to reopen the plant, officials now say it may be cheaper and more environmentally sound to scale back agriculture on the US side - paying farmers not to farm - and kill the Yuma desal plant.

Map of area:

The image below is of the Colorado River Delta in 2000.

In this image of the Colorado River Delta taken on September 8, 2000, irrigation and urban sprawl now prevent the river from reaching its final destination. The Colorado River can be seen in dark blue at the topmost central part of this image. The river comes to an end just south of the multicolored patchwork of farmlands in the northwestern corner of the image and then fans out at the base of the Sierra de Juarez. A hundred years ago the river would have cut through this entire picture and plowed straight through to the Gulf of California, the mouth of which can be seen in solid blue at the lower right hand corner of the image. The bluish purple river that appears to be flowing from the Gulf of California to the north is actually an inlet that formed in the bed of the Colorado River after it receded. The island at the entrance to the Gulf of California is the Isle Montague. The gray areas surrounding this inlet and the gulf itself are mud flats created by sediments once carried by the river. The flat yellow expanse to the east of the farms is the Gran Desierto. Between the farmland and the desert one can see a dark blue pool covered with patches of green. Known as Cienega de Santa Clara, this salt-water marsh formed by return irrigation is home to a huge population of birds.

The water flowing into the these wetlands has nourished and provided renewed sanctuary for migratory bird species and the endangered Yuma Clapper Rail.

The image below is from La Cienega de Santa Clara.

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1 comment:

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