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Different channels to a ‘living river’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “You’ve got to deal with people, farmers, companies, everyone,” Sandra Postel told me last week when I asked about the work she’s doing trying to find environmentally sustainable solutions to western North America’s water problems.

In other words, you’ve got to cooperate.

Postel, an internationally known water scholar and author of the 1992 book “The Last Oasis,” lives west of Los Lunas, but we’d never met until a chance encounter last March in the sandy bed of the Colorado River in northern Mexico, where we were waiting for the first trickles of water to arrive at the city of San Luis.

The residents of San Luis we met that week were insistent when they described the importance of the event. The city’s name is “San Luis Río Colorado,” more than one person told me.

“Río Colorado” is part of its name, but for decades the riverbed that defines the western edge of town had been dry, more sandy off-road vehicle track than great Western river. Farms and cities upstream, mostly in the United States (with Albuquerque and Santa Fe among them), take so much water out of the Colorado River before it gets to the Arizona-Baja-Sonora border that the once-great river rarely reaches the Sea of Cortez anymore.

“Virtually the entire Colorado’s flow,” Postel wrote years ago, “is captured and siphoned off upstream to fill swimming pools in Los Angeles, generate electricity for Las Vegas, irrigate crops in the deserts of Arizona, California, and the Mexicali Valley.”

The result, Postel wrote, is a river delta dried, its once abundant wildlife “now gone.”

And yet there we were, standing amid what was rapidly turning into an impromptu community festival under the highway bridge at San Luis as the first trickles of Colorado River water crept down ruts left in the sand by the four-wheelers. Kids splashed in a river that had never before, in their lives, had water.

Two days before, 20 miles upstream, Mexican and U.S. water managers had opened the gates of Morelos Dam – what is normally the last dam on the river – and begun letting a pulse of water through. In the midst of a deep drought, they made a conscious decision to bypass farms and cities, sending water down the main river channel for the exclusive benefit of the environment itself.

The dry riverbed beneath the bridge at San Luis in Sonora, Mexico, turned into an impromptu community festival last March as river managers ran water down the long-dried channel as part of an environmental experiment. (Albuquerque Journal File)

The dry riverbed beneath the bridge at San Luis in Sonora, Mexico, turned into an impromptu community festival last March as river managers ran water down the long-dried channel as part of an environmental experiment. (Albuquerque Journal File)

I was thinking of Postel and that March Colorado River environmental experiment when the environmental group WildEarth Guardians filed suit under the Endangered Species Act July 24, trying to force the federal government to curtail human water use and leave more water for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow and the river on which it depends, the Rio Grande in central New Mexico.

On the Lower Colorado River, the approach has been very different. The deal that enabled the water to flow through San Luis and down to the delta was entirely voluntary on the part of all the players.

U.S. water agencies, joined by environmental groups on both sides of the border, agreed to help pay for irrigation system improvements in Mexico. By making the system more efficient, the region’s farmers can grow the same crops with less water. Some of the water saved is then distributed to Mexican water users, some will go the U.S. agencies that helped pay the bills and some will be left in the river for the environment.

The coalition behind the Colorado River effort is broad. Postel works with the National Geographic Society’s “Change the Course” project, which is leveraging individual and corporate donations from the likes of Coca Cola and Disney to help. The Environmental Defense Fund, one of the nation’s largest environmental groups, has played a key role, with financial support from the Walton Family Foundation – the family behind Walmart.

Fifty-one days after Postel and I met in the riverbed at San Luis, the Colorado finally reached the Gulf of California, also know as the Sea of Cortez. “If rivers are born with a destiny, it is to reach the sea,” Postel wrote the day it happened.

The Colorado River is the marquee example of this, an international river. But it is not the only one, Postel said, with similar collaborative approaches being used across the western United States.

The sort of collaborative approach that we saw on the Colorado, and that Postel and others are working on elsewhere, is very different from the process now underway on the Rio Grande. The WildEarth Guardians lawsuit puts questions of how much water should be left for the environment, and how we approach the problem of getting it there, in the hands of a federal judge.

Among the key players who made Colorado River flow happen is Mike Connor – a water lawyer who grew up in Las Cruces and once worked as New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s water-problem solver. As head of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from 2009-14, Connor lead the U.S. team that negotiated the deal to provide the environmental flow for the Colorado River delta.

He was recently promoted to deputy secretary of interior, which was the hat he was wearing as he and I stood on a levee overlooking the river in March, watching the water flow down the once-dry riverbed toward San Luis, the veteran bureaucrat was clearly moved.

“People want a living river,” Connor told me.

The question is how best to accomplish that.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.