Well, I'll Be Un-Dammed: Colorado River (Briefly) Reached The Sea

  • Rowan Jacobsen, in the canoe, and Pete McBride and Sam Walton, on stand-up paddleboards, travel through the upper limitrophe of the Colorado River, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the release of water from the Morelos dam, Jacobsen described this parched riverbed as a trench, with big stretches of it bone-dry.
    Hide caption
    Rowan Jacobsen, in the canoe, and Pete McBride and Sam Walton, on stand-up paddleboards, travel through the upper limitrophe of the Colorado River, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the release of water from the Morelos dam, Jacobsen described this parched riverbed as a trench, with big stretches of it bone-dry.
    Courtesy Fred Phillips
  • Jacobsen paddles through the Colorado River just above San Luis, Mexico, 17 miles below the Moreno dam. The release of water from the dam created a "pulse flow" that temporarily restored the river that used to flow here. Now, three months afterward, it's dry once more. In the absence of the river's flow, this region's native habitats have been replaced by invasive salt cedar.
    Hide caption
    Jacobsen paddles through the Colorado River just above San Luis, Mexico, 17 miles below the Moreno dam. The release of water from the dam created a "pulse flow" that temporarily restored the river that used to flow here. Now, three months afterward, it's dry once more. In the absence of the river's flow, this region's native habitats have been replaced by invasive salt cedar.
    Courtesy Fred Phillips
  • An aerial view of the lower portion of the Colorado River shows the leading edge of the pulse flow before it connects with the sea. You can see the part of the delta the water has yet to reach in white, in the lower left-hand corner.
    Hide caption
    An aerial view of the lower portion of the Colorado River shows the leading edge of the pulse flow before it connects with the sea. You can see the part of the delta the water has yet to reach in white, in the lower left-hand corner.
    Francisco Zamora/Sonoran Institute, with aerial support from LightHawk.
  • Before the water from the dam reached it, this area was dry sand: The water table is usually 30-40 feet deep in this region. The next two photos show this same spot as it experiences the changes wrought by the pulse flow.
    Hide caption
    Before the water from the dam reached it, this area was dry sand: The water table is usually 30-40 feet deep in this region. The next two photos show this same spot as it experiences the changes wrought by the pulse flow.
    Courtesy Fred Phillips
  • Rowan Jacobsen's river trip stopped at this point, where — when they arrived — the flow of water had cut through the sand, but was a trickle too small for transportation. Here, Osvel Hinojosa checks in with his crew to tell them of the team's location, so they can bring in supplies.
    Hide caption
    Rowan Jacobsen's river trip stopped at this point, where — when they arrived — the flow of water had cut through the sand, but was a trickle too small for transportation. Here, Osvel Hinojosa checks in with his crew to tell them of the team's location, so they can bring in supplies.
    Courtesy Fred Phillips
  • Twelve hours after they had halted at the river's end, the team woke up to see that the previous night's small stream had become a river. Two weeks after this photo was taken, the leading edge of the water reached the estuary that was the river's final destination.
    Hide caption
    Twelve hours after they had halted at the river's end, the team woke up to see that the previous night's small stream had become a river. Two weeks after this photo was taken, the leading edge of the water reached the estuary that was the river's final destination.
    Courtesy Fred Phillips

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For a few weeks this spring, the Colorado River flowed all the way to the sea for the first time in a half a century. And during that window of opportunity, writer Rowan Jacobsen took the paddleboarding trip of a lifetime.

The river starts in the Rocky Mountains, and for more than 1,400 miles, it wends its way south. Along the way it's dammed and diverted dozens of times, to cities and fields all over the American West. Tens of millions of people depend on the river as a water source.

Rowan Jacobsen, shown here at the end of his paddle-boarding trip down the Colorado River delta, writes about food and the environment. His books include A Geography of Oysters, Fruitless Fall and Shadows on the Gulf. i i

Rowan Jacobsen, shown here at the end of his paddle-boarding trip down the Colorado River delta, writes about food and the environment. His books include A Geography of Oysters, Fruitless Fall and Shadows on the Gulf. Courtesy Fred Phillips hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Fred Phillips
Rowan Jacobsen, shown here at the end of his paddle-boarding trip down the Colorado River delta, writes about food and the environment. His books include A Geography of Oysters, Fruitless Fall and Shadows on the Gulf.

Rowan Jacobsen, shown here at the end of his paddle-boarding trip down the Colorado River delta, writes about food and the environment. His books include A Geography of Oysters, Fruitless Fall and Shadows on the Gulf.

Courtesy Fred Phillips

By the time the Colorado River reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, only 10 percent of it is left. At that point, it hits the Morelos Dam, and the river dies: It's diverted a final time into Mexican farmland.

This March, the U.S. and Mexico made the unprecedented decision to open the dam and release billions of gallons of water into the dry riverbeds downstream. This "pulse flow" supported efforts to restore ecosystems in the former Colorado River Delta, and briefly brought the river back to life.

Jacobsen was part of a team that traveled down the temporary river in canoes and on stand-up paddleboards. He wrote about the experience for Outside magazine, and spoke to NPR's Kelly McEvers about the adventure.

He tells her about paddling by freaked-out Border Patrol agents and passing through former river towns celebrating the return of the water. He also addresses the controversy over releasing so much water during a drought.

"Fifty times as much water as was released for this project is used for irrigation to make alfalfa, basically, to feed cattle," Jacobsen says. "So if we can just take 1/50 of the water that we use to make hamburgers and milk from the Colorado River, we can have this kind of event every year."

You can hear their full conversation at the audio link on this page.

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