On the map the delta was bisected by the river, but in fact the river was nowhere and everywhere, for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the gulf. So he traveled them all, and so did we. He divided and rejoined, he twisted and turned, he meandered in awesome jungles, he all but ran in circles, he dallied with lovely groves, he got lost and was glad of it, and so were we. For the last word in procrastination, go travel with a river reluctant to lose his freedom in the sea.
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac 1
“Procrastination” would today be a sorry euphemism for the condition of the Colorado River as it winds through the marshlands of Sonora and struggles to empty into the Gulf of California; today the delta of the great river is more “nowhere” than “everywhere,” a landscape diminished to just ten percent of the nearly two million acres of wetlands that Aldo Leopold explored by canoe with his brother in 1922. At this point this once rich ecosystem has been deprived of its life-giving water by upstream users — the river has traveled almost 1,500 miles from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, and its waters have been steadily apportioned by a decades-old treaty that enabled the explosive population growth of the Southwest but made no provision for the health of the delta. But as the writer and naturalist Charles Bergman argues, it’s too soon to give up the lower Colorado for dead; as he writes in his book on the region, Red Delta, “… there is a much more abundant and vibrant natural environment in the delta below the [U.S.-Mexico] border than anyone had dreamed of, a secret and unknown world of life.” 2
In fact, relatively modest infusions of water (even water of dubious quality) can have a remarkably restorative effect on habitat; and just this past November, the International Boundary and Water Commission agreed to provide more of the river’s waters to Mexico in years when there is surplus supply. The Commission is not alone in its conservation efforts. The Tucson-based Sonoran Institute has been working for years to create the Colorado River Delta Nature Preserve in Mexico, pursuing active and passive restoration using native vegetation, with the ultimate goal of restoring more than 160,000 acres of the delta in the next two decades. The largest wetland in the Colorado Delta is La Ciénega de Santa Clara — about 15,000 acres of cattail marshlands and mudflats. It is truly an accidental ecosystem, owing its existence to an unanticipated consequence of international water politics — in essence, to the negotiated diversion of salty irrigation water from Arizona to Mexico. Today the Sonoran Institute estimates that La Ciénaga provides habitat for more than 150,000 migratory waterbirds, notably the Yuma Clapper Rail, as well as other threatened and endangered species.
During my visit to the Colorado Delta, I was struck by its surreal quality; this is a landscape unlike any I have seen. In the aerial photographs presented here, I have documented not only the (mostly dry) river channel and vast areas of salt encrusted wasteland, but also the dendritic tidal creeks, some of which look, from above, like the dragons in Chinese paintings. Some scenes have an almost Martian otherworldliness; others defy description. There is unexpected beauty. There is also resilience. La Ciénega de Santa Clara is an oasis. A large flock of white pelicans, flying below our plane, their shadows black streaks on the tidal flats, speak to the persistence of life along the Gulf of California.