The Science and Policy of the First Environmental Flows to the Colorado River Delta

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 3:10 PM
Karl W Flessa, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States, Eloise Kendy, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Flows Program, Helena, MT, United States and Karen Schlatter, Sonoran Institute, Colorado River Delta Legacy Program, Tucson, AZ, United States
The first transboundary flow of water for the environment was delivered to the Colorado River Delta in spring of 2014. This engineered mini-spring flood of 130 million cubic meters (105,000 acre-feet) was implemented as part of Minute 319, an addition to the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty. Minute 319 is a temporary agreement, expiring in 2017. Teams of scientists from government agencies, universities, and environmental NGOs from both the U.S. and Mexico are measuring the surface flow rates, inundation, ground water recharge, ground water levels and subsurface flows, geomorphic change, recruitment, survival and health of vegetation, and avian response to the environmental flow. Monitoring includes on-the-ground observations and measurements and remote sensing. Surface water from the pulse flow reached restoration sites, prompted germination of both native and non-native vegetation, recharged groundwater and reached the Gulf of California – the first reconnection of the Colorado River and the sea in 16 years. People in local communities joyously welcomed the return of the river; extensive media coverage was overwhelmingly positive – despite widespread drought in the West. After about ten weeks, most of the pulse flow had infiltrated the subsurface, ponded in a few cut-off meanders, or run to the sea. The river no longer flows. Monitoring of seedling survival, groundwater, vegetation and wildlife will continue through 2017. Results of this landscape-scale experiment will play a role in negotiations to renew the agreement, help model and design future flows and guide the efficient use of water for restoration in semi-arid river systems.