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.
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.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The Colorado 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. But drought and the tens of millions of people who depend on that river are sucking it dry. This week the reservoir that supplies Las Vegas, Lake Mead, reached its lowest level in history. By the time the Colorado River reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, only 10 percent of it is left. At that point, it's a place called the Morelos Dam and is diverted a final time into Mexican farmland. In other words, Morelos is where you go to see the Colorado River die. Rowan Jacobsen is a writer and he recently was at the Morelos Dam, when something pretty astounding happened. He says on one side of the dam, it's this lush, green place and on the other...
ROWAN JACOBSEN: It's a surreal landscape. You look south and you just see a trench. Big stretches of it are bone-dry. It is just a river of sand at this point. So you just see the riverbed filled with white sand, like you'd find at the beach. And that's all that's left of what used to be a vast delta with about 2 million acres.
MCEVERS: Wow. So then recently Mexican and American officials agreed and decided to lift the Morelos Dam and let some water flow into that parched riverbed. Why?
JACOBSEN: It was 15 years in the works and it's a complicated arrangement. There's a lot of pieces to it. But one part that everyone came to agree on is that it would be a great thing to let a bunch of water go down the traditional channel, purely for ecological restoration, which was the first time the U.S. and Mexican governments have done anything like that.
MCEVERS: And so you were there when they lifted the dam. Tell us where exactly you were when that happened.
JACOBSEN: I was directly below the dam which, in retrospect, was probably a fairly stupid place to be.
MCEVERS: (Laughing) Yeah.
JACOBSEN: But I wasn't alone. There was maybe a couple hundred of us there. So the gate opened and this little surge came out. And we all cheered and we popped some champagne. And then we realized the surge was a bit bigger than we had expected. So pretty quick we had to scramble up a bank to get away from it. But that was a good sign because this was going to be a full-blown river, at least for a few weeks.
MCEVERS: So they really - they lift the dam, slowly. It starts to look like, wow, this is going to be a river. What was your plan?
JACOBSEN: We pulled together a small band of river rafts and paddle boards.
MCEVERS: This is basically like standing on a surfboard and paddling your way through.
JACOBSEN: Yeah, all day long. The first 22 miles, it actually forms the border with Arizona. So we would be paddling and we could see the Border Patrol guys off to the side, occasionally, when the river would curve through there. They were a little freaked out by the whole situation.
MCEVERS: So as you follow the path of the water down, how were people reacting to the fact that this river was coming back after being gone for decades?
JACOBSEN: Yeah, you know, the end of our first day, we came into this town called San Luis Rio, Colorado, which was always a river town, until the water dried up. So us and the water arrived in this town that hadn't seen water in decades.
JACOBSEN: And the party had started already. All the kids were waiting there and the kids start splashing the water, cranking up the ranchero music. And it was just a huge fiesta.
MCEVERS: So water from the Colorado River eventually did reach the sea, all the way to the Gulf of California. What's going to happen now? Is that water going to keep flowing?
JACOBSEN: No, it's done. It was shut off in May. Enough water has been purchased to basically keep a trickle going for the next five years to try to keep these trees alive. But it's just a trickle.
MCEVERS: I mean, 'cause I think we have to say that we are here in the West in the middle of a major drought. I mean, how can you make the case this particular project needs water over some other, you know, bigger agricultural projects - you know, obviously cities that need water?
JACOBSEN: It's super controversial and a lot of people think this was about the dumbest thing you possibly could have done with the water. But, you know, 50 times as much water as was released from this project is used for irrigation to make alfalfa, basically, to feed cattle. So if we can just take 1/50 of the water we used to make hamburgers and milk from the Colorado River, we can have this kind of event every year.
MCEVERS: That's Rowan Jacobsen. His story about the un-damming of the Colorado River in Morelos, Mexico is in this month's issue of Outside Magazine. Rowan, thanks so much.
JACOBSEN: Thanks Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.