Photo: © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Colorado River: Hope for the Hopeless?

When I first became director for The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, quite a few folks told me I was crazy

“The Colorado River is a lost cause,” they said. 

As I did my assessment of potential strategies and places to work, the Colorado River Delta stood out as a place that might meet this description. The dusty expanse of land located between the U.S and Mexico has rarely seen water flowing into the Gulf of California since the 1960s.

The Colorado River Delta symbolized the very issue we face throughout the River’s vast basin – not enough water to meet local needs and sustain the river’s ecological health. 

Still, I put it on the list of places to work, because if we could address that quandary in the Delta, we could certainly address those same issues throughout the Basin.  

I like to think I was being hopeful. But others likely thought I had just lost my mind. 

When it comes to water issues in the West, progress is slow, and conflicts are common. There are countless stakeholders who all depend on the Colorado River. 

Farmers must ensure they have enough water to grow their crops or support their ranching operations. Cities must deliver safe, clean water every day. Almost all industries and energy production require water. 

People who fish or boat fight to keep enough water in the river while companies that support recreational activities need water to maintain viable businesses.

Finally, wildlife needs water to survive. A colleague of mine often says, “fish need water every day.” Conservation organizations aim to be the voice for wildlife and the river’s health.

Balancing all of these needs is the trick – every one of them is valid, and yet there just isn’t enough water to go around. 

Ideally, we strive for balance and elusive win-win-win solutions. There is nothing easy or simple about it.

Stakeholders can spend years or even decades seeking solutions to our water challenges in the West and still wind up empty-handed. On the other hand, meeting the needs of people while preserving the health of our rivers and lakes is likely the most important environmental issue facing the world today.

This urgency makes Minute 319, a recent binational agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to take the first steps to restore the Colorado River Delta, all the more exciting and worth celebrating. 

The new agreement includes many benefits for cities, farmers and the river itself. It epitomizes our goal along the entire Colorado River: finding solutions for our communities and the environment in spite of water scarcity. 

If we can accomplish this in Delta, I believe we can achieve the same balance in the rest of the Basin. 

As part of Minute 319, water managers opened Morelos Damon March 23 to release water into the Delta for the first time in decades.

On March 23, 2014, a historic moment -- water from the Colorado River is released back into its channel from Morelos Dam. The water release is designed to bring the delta region back to life. Image credit: Peter Warren.
On March 23, 2014, a historic moment — water from the Colorado River is released back into its channel from Morelos Dam. The water release is designed to bring the delta region back to life. Image credit: Peter Warren.

Today, the dam will be opened even more to emulate a spring flood. People on both sides of the border will celebrate our ability to reach a broad agreement that encompasses environmental benefits that are so important to us. 

We still have a lot of work to do in the Delta, but Minute 319 is a huge step forward, demonstrating that cross-boundary collaboration and elusive solutions are possible. 

The symbolism of the agreement is also important. It’s more difficult to say solutions for people and nature aren’t possible, when we have an example that crosses international boundaries. 

If we can find compromise for the Colorado River and its parched Delta, I know we can find solutions for almost all our rivers in the Basin and around the world. There is hope for the hopeless.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. There are so many priorities on the Colorado River. But few rank as high as the Delta for conservation outcomes, social and ethical good, and testing the will of the river’s users. Congratulations. I hope to get there soon and see the results for myself!

  2. This is a great article, Taylor. The photos and videos were powerful, and they made me wish I was there! Congrats to all who have been part of this effort. It’s definitely something that changes our perspective about what’s possible.

  3. This is fantastic work! Congratulations & thank you for your tremendous foresight and efforts!!!

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