Restoring a Forest from a Desert
Rocío Torres Moguel talks about her work in the Colorado River Delta with the Sonoran Institute
Many of the Indigenous communities that are native to the Colorado River Basin believe that water is life. For millennia, the river has sustained a vibrant diversity of species and cultures, including the Cucapá people who live in the river’s delta. With a name that means, “people of the river,” it’s no surprise that the Cucapá’s identity is closely bound to the boisterous flows of the mighty Colorado. Yet, if you visited their ancestral lands today, you would find mainly dry desert and salt flats.
The Colorado River runs 1,450 miles from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to Northern Mexico where it feeds into the Sea of Cortez. The Delta is the end of this long journey, where the Colorado River deposits rich sediment and freshwater into the salty sea. This ecosystem used to be a lush wetland that covered nearly 2 million acres and offered a home to jaguars, beavers and massive flocks of migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
But over the last century, flows in the river have decreased dramatically, largely due to the construction of dams and water diversions to support more than 40 million people who rely on it. Now, only 1% of historic flows actually make it all the way to the Delta.
Fortunately, there is hope for the future. Many NGOs and public agencies from both sides of the border between the United States and Mexico, are collaborating to rescue the Colorado River and its precious Delta ecosystem. Planet Women is excited to be partnering with Sonoran Institute — one of the groups playing a critical role in this transnational effort. Together, we are supporting women leaders as they pursue innovative solutions to the restoration and protection of the Colorado River.
We spoke with Rocío Torres Moguel, Sonoran Institute’s Colorado River Delta Program Director, to understand more about what’s happening in the Delta and what makes her optimistic for the future of the region.
Rocío is based out of the Institute’s office in Mexicali, Baja California, an area that is grappling with many issues related to dwindling flows from the Colorado River. She told us that the loss of water in the region has had a devastating impact on the local people and native biodiversity. As the river dried up, the plants and wildlife that depended on the water began to die. The ecosystem has shifted from a lush wetland oasis to salt flats and arid desert. The local communities lost a key water source and many lost their livelihoods. There have also been cultural impacts, as the river was critical to many people’s sense of identity, home, and connection with the native landscape.
Rocío and her team at Sonoran Institute are working with partners to restore the native habitat and revive the riparian ecosystem. So far, Sonoran Institute has restored over 700 acres of land in the Colorado river Delta, planting native trees like cottonwoods and willows that they grow in their native plant nursery.
“With the funding support we’ve received, our team has grown 40,000 trees during the past two years. We reforest with plants we grow and remove invasive species,” Rocío says. “Our restoration site, Laguna Grande, is an oasis in the desert that provides a break from the heat and is home to endangered species like beavers and birds.” Sonoran Institute purchases water rights for the farmers, so that they can dedicate that water to stay instream long enough to end up feeding into the Colorado River Delta.
In 2014, Sonoran Institute and a coalition of philanthropic organizations known as Raise the River and government partners, did what was once considered impossible — they reconnected the river to the ocean. A “pulse flow” was created when 157,500 acre-feet of water was released from the Morelos Dam at the U.S.-Mexico border. This was the world’s first environmental flow release an international boundary, providing an opportunity to assess the potential to restore the delta’s severely degraded riparian habitat. The event known as the Pulse Flow brought much joy to the local community and called forth a surge of wildlife to revel in the unexpected river water.
Over the next four years, the U.S. and Mexico governments are committed through the Minute 323 to provide 105,000 acre-feet of water for environmental purposes within Mexico. Rocío’s team collaborates with the Raise the River Alliance and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California to monitor the flows and collect data on their impact to flora and fauna, all of which gets shared with other research teams that help to develop future plans for the Delta. You can read their daily travelogue about the delivered 35,000 acre-feet of water received in 2021 flow season here.
“Many people thought it couldn’t be done, but this example shows that an ecosystem can be restored.” says Rocío. “I want to acknowledge my team who works hard despite facing many challenges, especially during Covid.”
As a complement to their restoration work, Sonoran Institute also runs an environmental education program, which has ramped up with a new online platform during the pandemic, to provide a much-needed connection point between communities and nature. The program has reached over 15,000 local students, families and Indigenous communities through outdoor activities at their restoration sites, as well as through their new free online courses.
The next project on the horizon for Rocío is one that helps support the livelihoods of local people in the Colorado River Delta ecosystem. With enough funding, she would like to set up an initiative that helps the local community produce eco-friendly goods and services, so families can make ends meet in a way that also benefits the environment.
This kind of project is one that Rocío is familiar with. Before joining Sonoran Institute, she developed a program that supported Indigenous communities that resided in and around protected areas in Mexico. The initiative continues to help Indigenous artisans sell sustainable crafts and provide ecotourism services, while ensuring the protection of endangered species like jaguars, tapirs and leatherback turtles. We hope to see a similar project take off in the Delta region!
Thank you to Rocío and the Sonoran Institute on all their hard work! We can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Colorado River Basin and its beautiful delta. To learn more about Sonoran Institute, visit their website. To get updates on the Colorado River Delta project, follow Sonoran Institute Mexico on Facebook. To support the Colorado River Delta project, donate here.