The Colorado River may have cut the Grand Canyon, but for much of its course the river is no longer so mighty. Most of the time, the Colorado no longer even reaches the sea.
The moisture the Colorado River brings to an arid part of the United States and a piece of northern Mexico has sustained generations of people and many generations of wildlife. But that water has long been over allocated, sucked dry by the 30 million people who rely on it for drinking and irrigation.
Once free, the Colorado now has many dams along its 1,450 miles (2,333 kilometers). Its life-giving water is divided up among seven U.S. states and Mexico according to a series of treaties and agreements. But precious little flows remain to support the rich ecosystems that once flourished along the river’s path.
As Wade Davis recently reported, the Colorado once supported a vast, sprawling delta where it met the Gulf of California:
As recently as the last years of the nineteenth century the wetlands produced enough wood to fuel the steamships and paddle wheelers that supplied all of the army outposts, mining camps, and ragtag settlements of the lower Colorado. Today the gallery forests of cottonwood and willow are a shadow of memory, displaced by thickets of tamarisk and arrowweed, invasive species capable of surviving in soils poisoned by salt.
Davis added that, as a result of the loss of rich sediments that were formerly deposited into the Gulf, “Marine productivity has fallen by as much as 95 percent, and all that remains to recall the bounty of the estuary are the countless millions of shells that form the islands and beaches on the shore.”