The River That Doesn’t Reach The Sea

Then as it was, then again it will be,
An’ though the course may change sometimes,
Rivers always reach the sea.

Those are the opening lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone,” from the band’s 1975 album Physical Graffiti. It has long been one of my favorites, and that last line – rivers always reach the sea – has always rung true. Until now.

It seems that not all rivers reach the sea. At least not anymore. Some rivers have been so dammed and manipulated – dammed for power and diverted for irrigation – in recent years that they literally dry up and disappear before reaching their natural destination…the sea.

The once powerful Colorado River, sculptor of the Grand Canyon, no longer reaches the sea.

The once powerful Colorado River, sculptor of the Grand Canyon, no longer reaches the sea.

The mighty Colorado is one such river. The Colorado River had flowed from the snowpacks of the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico for some 6 million years, carving the Grand Canyon along its 1,450-mile journey. But thanks to dams and other waterworks projects, the river now disappears around 100 miles short of the sea – into a desert where one of the largest wetlands in all of North American once stood, an estuary that was larger than the state of Delaware.

What Happened?
The Colorado is one of the most dammed and diverted rivers in the world. Its water is tapped for 30 million people in cities like Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. It also provides many of them with hydroelectric power. And more than 70 percent of the river’s water is diverted for agriculture in Southern California alone.

Did you know that any American-grown lettuce you eat in the winter months is grown thanks to irrigation from the Colorado River? Water that has passed through the Grand Canyon eventually makes its way to the back of your mouth. So even if you don’t live near the river, its health and well-being still impacts your life. Remember that the next time you take a bite of lettuce.

Because of the more than 100 dams and countless canals controlling its flow, the Colorado River has only managed to reach the sea a few times since 1963. After 6 million years of reaching its destination, we’ve managed to make it fall short for the better part of more than 50 years. And it hasn’t once reached the sea since 1998 – 16 years ago.

Is this the death of the river? No, but it certainly should serve as a wake-up call. Resources are finite, and that’s true even for something as powerful as the river that carved the Grand Canyon, and for something so seemingly ubiquitous as fresh water.

A Trickle of Hope
The good news is that it’s not too late to change our ways. As part of an agreement between the United States and Mexico, know as Minute 319, scientists have undertaken a five-year experiment to periodically release “pulses” of water from these dams. The idea is that these sudden rushes of water, strategically timed, will mimic the springtime floods and other changes that used to occur naturally in the river.

These controlled mini-floods helped the river – or what’s left of it – achieve a more natural state, reducing sediment and fueling a livelier habitat. And to everyone’s surprise and delight, the spring release in 2014 – helped by a high tide – reunited the river and the ocean for the first time in 16 years.

Before you start splashing for joy, keep in mind that less than one percent of the river’s historic flow made it to the sea in this rare reunions. And that this experiment – these strategic dam releases – is finite, whereas the demand for fresh water and affordable energy continues to grow exponentially.

Dehydrated Rivers
It’s also important to remember that the Colorado River is only one example in a world where rivers are routinely being starved to death. In Pakistan, the Indus River barely trickles into the Port of Karachi. The Rio Grande River, famously separating the US and Mexico, has occasionally failed to make it all the way to the ocean. The same can be said of the Yellow River, the second longest in China.

The incredible shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The incredible shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Perhaps the greatest lesson can come from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, two rivers that fed the Aral Sea. Once one of the largest lakes in the world, so large that it was thought to be a sea, the vast Aral Sea used to be 26,300 square miles – an area larger than West Virginia. Thanks to reckless Soviet-era irrigation projects, the Amu Darya no longer reaches the Aral Sea, which has since shrunk by more than 95 percent (as in their’s only 5 percent of it left!) to 1,270 square miles – an area smaller than Long Island.

The death of the Aral Sea is a good example of the impact of overusing these natural resources. While diverting rivers for agricultural uses can help us feed our ever-growing population, this also lowers water levels. The water becomes saltier, and the fish and aquatic plants began to die. Even plants along the shore began to wither.

As with all our natural resources, everyone wants to take a little – for their own needs. It’s not much, but it adds up. And with populations growing at an exponential rate around the world, and the demand for agriculture on the rise as we over-fish our oceans, lakes, and rivers to feed this ever-growing population, we are asking more and more and even more of our rivers and other natural resources. There’s only so much to go around. At some point, we need to find an alternative. And that some point is now.

If you are interested, here are two ways you can help the effort to restore some balance to the Colorado River: The Sonoran Institute’s Colorado River Delta Water Trust and the tramp-stamp friendly Save the Colorado. Then as it was, let us hope again it will be.