When the United Nations designated 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater, it turned yet another spotlight on what most experts believe will be the most important environmental and health issue of the coming century: water.
Though obscured by our current geopolitical anxieties over Muslim terrorism, the squandering of freshwater resources and the big gulp ethics of rich nations lurk in the shadows as a growing source of tension and conflict.
Americans typically like to distance themselves from such global water worries, imagining them in such faraway places as Eritrea or Ethiopia. Water is a problem for dry and developing nations, we think.
We need to think again.
Water problems are not only right here with us at home, but they affect our relations with our nearest neighbors. The word "rival" derives from the Latin word riva, for river: rivals are people on opposite banks of a river, fighting over water. Our long disputes with Mexico, for example, have been as much about water as they have been about land, as much about dividing the waters as grabbing for land. The border with Mexico may cut through dry deserts, but we continue to fight over the water in the rivers, the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, especially.
Thats what I discovered when I wrote my most recent book, "Red Delta: Fighting for Life at the End of the Colorado River."
I began work on the book during my recent Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship in Mexico. While working on my project on "Humanities and the Environment," I visited the Mexican delta of the Colorado River. Not many Americans even know that the Colorado River empties into the head Gulf of California, between Sonora and Baja California. Its last 100 miles flow through the deserts of Mexico to this inland sea.
Its perhaps a measure of how far removed our way of life has made us, that we know so little about the actual river. We have plumbed it and dammed it, choked it and subdued it, so that it is no longer even a river. It is simply the largest plumbing system in the worldthe work not of nature but of armies of engineers and lawyers. Indeed, the only two species on the Colorado River not in danger of extinction are engineers and lawyers.
Some 23 million Americans turn on their faucets and out flows water from the Colorado River. That number is expected to grow to 38 million by 2020. From San Diego and Los Angeles, to Las Vegas or Phoenix, we have taken a huge gamble that we could build a society in the arid desert hugely dependent on this one river. After years of California using millions of gallons more than its legal allotment, the Department of the Interior is enforcing a Supreme Court ruling that the state take only its fair share, even as the population there multiplies. In the desert southwest, we are already at our limits in water use, but continue to grow as if water were a limitless resource.
What we have done in the desert is not a model of the wise use of water. The river was subjected to the principle of "total use." To build this desert society, we had to take for ourselves virtually every drop of the water in the Colorado River. It required the building of about 90 dams and diversions on the Colorado River, a 50-year frenzy of dam construction. Every drop of water in the river is actually used up to three times by humans. In dry years, not a single drop reaches the sea.
Wildlife always came last. The river itself, as a river, was forgotten.
Our control of the river was complete. No studies were done of the effects on habitats or species. Freshwater fish have an endangerment and extinction rate, in the United States, that rivals that of the tropical rainforests. But the worst devastation was reserved for the rivers delta in Mexico. We simply turned our back on it. Americans took the rivers water. The devastation of the rivers delta we gave to Mexico. We took the wealth. They got the environmental costs.
And it was a spectacular delta. Aldo Leopold, the great father of modern environmentalism, explored the delta before the dams went in upriver. He described it in an essay as "a wilderness of milk and honey." How rich was this river delta? To get an idea, you must imagine this. Americans are familiar with the Grand Canyon. It is a symbol of our national greatness, a part of our national psyche. Few think, when they see the canyon, where all that dirt went. The answer is: the delta in Mexico. Without the silt from the Colorado River, Palm Springs would be a resort town on the shores of the Gulf of California.
The delta is two million acres in size, as big as the state of Connecticut. It was more spectacular than the Nile and Ganges deltas, to which it was compared. But because it was in Mexico, it is a huge blind spot for Americans.
And that is the story of "Red Delta," the amazing and utterly unexpected revival of ecosystems in the Mexican delta of the Colorado River. As water resources returned, because of bureaucratic mistakes by the United States or because of huge El Niño floods, life in the desert delta returned. One of the most spectacular marshes in North America has grown up in the rich desert soils just 35 miles south of the Arizona border with Mexico. The Ciénega de Santa Clara is a 50,000 acre marshthats 3.5 times the size of Manhattan Island. Its home to some 250 species of birds, many of them endangered like the Yuma clapper rail.
This revival suddenly became an object lesson for both Mexicans and Americansall we need to do in the delta is provide a modicum of water, and the ecosystems will return. This is the story of "Red Delta": the unexpected revival of the great ecosystems in the delta and the binational efforts to study and protect them. Its a grassroots effort that has reached to the very highest levels of the governments of both Mexico and the United States.
The effort to sustain this unlikely recovery in the Mexican desert means finding a modicum of water to sustain the ecosystems. That puts the delta in the heart of the water wars in the arid southwest. Efforts are under way to get an amendment to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico that would designate a certain small amount of water for ecological purposes. Much progress has been made, as the book shows. It is the first time that wildlife values, for example, are included in the laws that govern the management of the Colorado River.
The delta of the Colorado River is an object lesson in how we have not managed our water resources wisely. It is not simply a problem in the arid southwest, where water is relatively scarce. It is true here in the Pacific Northwest, as well, where water is abundant. We have dammed our rivers, and in the process endangered our native salmon.
Puget Sound may look pristine on a gleaming summer day, but each day we dump more than a billion gallons of polluted water into this precious inland sea. It is becoming dangerously polluted. The killer whales of Puget Sound, for example, are giving us a dire warning at the moment. According to toxicologists, they are the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. Their numbers have been declining for about eight years. They live on salmon, like many humans. They should be a warning to us.
In PLUs Environmental Studies Program, we have chosen to address the issues of water and water sustainability directly. We have recently received a grant from The Russell Family Foundation to work on a campus water sustainability project. As we enter the United Nations Year of Freshwater, we will work to make water a focus in our Environmental Studies curriculum and to make water sustainability a goal in campus operations.