This story is over 5 years old.

Watch the Colorado River Delta Abruptly Come Back to Life

NASA satellite imagery shows the effects of a one-time experimental release from upstream dams.
December 20, 2014, 8:19pm
​Image: Karl Flessa, University of Arizona

​It'd be hard to come up with a more profound or at least singular illustration of the state of fresh water in the Western United States than the Colorado River delta. Here, at the upper vertex of the Gulf of California, the Southwest's mightiest river once emptied into the sea, hydrating a lush, green fan of sediment in the process.

The last trickle of Colorado River water disappeared from the delta a decade ago, turning an expansive oasis, one of the largest desert estuaries in the world, into just another pocket of parched Sonora. The reason: dams and aquifers. The Colorado's water is siphoned away to California and the Southwest's other unlikely metropolises before it can make it to the delta or even the Mexican border. Green golf courses, etc.

A new program aims to bring some life back to the delta, offering a single "pulse" of water released from an upstream dam to the tune of 130 million cubic-meters. It's something. It's maybe more than something even, as NASA's satellite images in the video above show. The delta came back to life.

As reported at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting, 43 percent of wetted land soon sprouted green vegetation, with a 23 percent increase along the river's borders. Most of the water didn't actually make it to the Gulf: just a trickle. But the water that soaked into the ground replenished nourishing underwater reservoirs.

As mandated by the US/Mexico water agreement known ​as Minute 319, the release was a one-time thing. An experiment. Future releases will take further negotiations and another agreement, making the recent greening something of a tease.