The following is excerpted from River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado (Island Press, October 2012) by Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, ethnobotanist and anthropologist
Man always kills the things he loves, and so we the pioneers, have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may. I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?
—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
In 1922, having completed work on the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, Aldo Leopold, along with his younger brother, set out by canoe to explore the mouth of the mighty Colorado. At the time the main flow of the Colorado reached the sea, carrying with it each year millions of tons of silt and sand and so much fresh water that the river’s influence extended some forty miles into the Gulf of California.
The alluvial fan of the delta spread across two million acres, well over three thousand square miles, a vast riparian and tidal wetland the size of the state of Rhode Island. It was one of the largest desert estuaries on earth. Off shore, nutrients brought down by the river supported an astonishingly rich fishery for bagre and corvina, dolphins, and the rare and elusive vaquita porpoise, the world’s smallest marine cetacean. At the top of the food chain was the totoaba, an enormous relative of the white sea bass that grew to three hundred pounds, spawned in the brackish waters of the estuary and swarmed in the Sea of Cortez in such abundance that even fishermen blinded in old age, it was said, had no difficulty striking home their harpoons.
In contrast to the searing sands of the Sonoran Desert through which the lower Colorado flowed, and the blue and barren hills of the Sierra de los Cucapás, cradling the river valley to the north and west, the delta was lush and fertile, a “milk and honey wilderness,” as Leopold called it, of marshes and emerald ponds with cattails and wild grasses yielding to the wind, and cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite trees overhanging channels where the water ran everywhere and nowhere, as if incapable of settling upon a route to the sea. The river, wrote Leopold, “could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the gulf. So he travelled them all, and so did we. He divided and rejoined, he twisted and turned, he meandered in awesome jungles, he all but ran in circles, he dallied with lovely groves, he got lost and was glad of it, and so were we.”
Drifting with the ebb and flow of the tides, waking by dawn to the whistles of quail roosting in the branches of mesquite trees, making camp on mudflats etched with the tracks of wild boar, yellowlegs, and jaguar, the Leopold brothers experienced the Colorado delta much as had the Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcón, who first reached its shores in 1540. There were bobcats draped over cottonwood snags. Deer, raccoons, beavers, and coyotes, and flocks of birds so abundant they darkened the sky. Avocets and willets, mallards, widgeons, and teals, scores of cormorants, screaming gulls, and so many egrets on the wing that Leopold compared them in flight to “a premature snowstorm.” He wrote of great phalanxes of geese sideslipping toward the earth, falling like autumn leaves. On every shore he saw clapper rails and sandhill cranes, and overhead, doves and raptors scraping the sky.
It was an exquisite landscape, rich in fauna and flora, with hundreds of species of birds and rare fish, and along the mudflats, melons and wild grasses that yielded great handfuls of edible fruits and seeds. But the brothers’ sojourn in the delta was not without its challenges. The river was too muddy to drink, the lagoons too brackish, and every night they had to dig to find potable water. The dense and impenetrable thickets of cachinilla made movement on land almost impossible, leaving Leopold doubtful that people had ever lived in the wetlands. “The Delta having no place names,” he wrote, “we had to devise our own as we went.”
In this Leopold was quite wrong, for the marshes and lagoons of the Colorado delta had for a thousand years been home to the Cocopah Indians, who viewed themselves as the offspring of mythical gods, twins who had emerged from beneath the primordial water to create the firmament, the earth, and every living creature [Read more about the Cocopah, the “People of the River.”] In 1540 Hernando de Alarcón encountered at the mouth of the river not hundreds but thousands of men and women, who, in their rituals, he reported, revealed a deep reverence for the sun. He described the Cocopah as tall and strong, with bodies and faces adorned in paint. The men wore loincloths, the women coverings of feathers that fell back and front from the waist. Every adult man had shell ornaments hanging from the nose and ears, and deer bones suspended from bands of cordage wrapped around the arms. They gathered in great numbers, small bands of a hundred, larger assemblies of a thousand, and in one instance, as Alarcón reported, no fewer than six thousand.
To support such populations, the Cocopah grew watermelons and pumpkins, corn, beans, and squash. From the wild they feasted on fish, wood rats, beavers, raccoons, feral dogs, and cattail pollen and tule roots. In the first months of the year, with their stores of harvested food exhausted, they travelled to the high desert to gather cactus and agave. Mesquite pods, ground with a metate, yielded flour that was made into cakes or mixed with water and consumed as a drink. Their dwellings were simple structures—round domes of reeds and brush. They slept beneath blankets of rabbit skins. They moved through the marshes in dugout canoes, carved from cottonwood, or on rafts of logs bound together by ropes made from willow bark or wild grasses.
Their most elaborate rituals occurred at death. The body of the deceased was fully adorned and then cremated, along with all possessions and memories. Shelters were burned and even footprints eradicated to ensure that the spirits of the dead abandoned all attachments and were never tempted to return to the realm of the living. The destiny of the dead was a land of plenty, not far from home—salt flats near the mouth of the river. At the funeral ceremony, the orator shaman recalled all the events in the life of the departed, as the relatives danced, moving four times around the burning pyre, wailing, sobbing, and singing the songs of death. With the body nearly consumed, the women of the family turned their backs to the flames and solemnly cut off their hair as a sign of mourning. Then, with the healing smoke of tobacco and the relief of a ritual bath, each severed all connection to the deceased, even as wood in massive amounts was added to the fire to create a light that would shine through the night and illuminate in every corner of the delta the pathways of the living.
The Dried-Up Delta Today
Standing today on the banks of what was once a river, looking across a channel of white sand and past the scrub and scabrous vegetation that stretches across barren mudflats to the horizon, it is impossible to imagine a time when such funerary rituals could have occurred in the delta of the Colorado. 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.
The emerald lagoons are long gone, as are the migratory birds that in the tens of thousands once found refuge in the wetlands. In the sea the totoaba were hunted to near extinction, four million pounds a year by the 1940s, with individual fish selling for as little as five cents, and many thousands killed only for their bladders, dried as a delicacy to be used in Chinese soups, while the carcasses were left to rot in the desert sun. 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. These, along with the memories of Cocopah elders still living today who can recall swimming in the lagoons as children, and gathering wild grasses and hunting deer in the twilight with their families.
“Man always kills the thing he loves,” wrote Aldo Leopold, as he recalled his time in the Colorado delta, “and so we the pioneers, have killed our wilderness.” Within twenty years of his visit, most of the wildlife had disappeared. The fishery that had fed the people of the river for generations was severely diminished, and the Cocopah population had dropped to fewer than fifteen hundred.
A New Ethic is Born
Just before his death in 1948 Leopold famously articulated in A Sand County Almanac a new ethic of the land, one that might embrace “an intelligent humility toward man’s place in nature” and a definition of community that would expand to include its natural capital, the water and soil, plants and animals, the very land itself.
“Do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave?,” he asked. “Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
Unfortunately Leopold’s message came both too soon and too late for the delta of the Colorado, the very landscape that had in good measure inspired it. With the completion of Hoover Dam in 1935, the flow of the Colorado was dramatically reduced for six years, as the engineers allowed the reservoir dubbed Lake Mead to reach its capacity. The ecological implications of turning off a river like a tap evidently were never considered, any more than they were some thirty years later when the river’s flow was once again curtailed with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, which shut down the river for seventeen years until Lake Powell reached its design threshold in 1980. Downstream from the reservoirs, the Colorado is fed by a number of tributaries, but these flows in turn were cut off by other diversions, such as the Imperial and Morelos Dams, which capture Mexico’s entire allotment, the last 10 percent of the river’s flow, bringing water to Tijuana and Mexicali and allowing farmers to grow alfalfa, cotton, and corn in a desert basin that receives less than three inches of rain a year.
What reaches the mudflats of the delta today is agricultural runoff, wastewater that has flowed over fields, seeped into desert soils high in mineral salts, and pooled in reservoirs and back channels exposed to the sun. What once was a majestic river that each year in flood flushed clean the delta, replenishing the land with silt and nutrients, is today a saline slurry, with a salt content so high it cannot be used to water even the most hardy of garden plants. Thus by the time water provided to ranchers and farmers in the upper Colorado basin for a mere $3.50 an acre-foot reaches the delta, it must be treated and desalinated before it can be placed on Mexican fields, increasing the costs a hundredfold.
To walk down a gravel road just south of the border town of San Luis Rio Colorado and watch what remains of the Colorado pass through rusted culverts, bringing not fertility but toxicity to the land, is to ask what on earth became of this stream so revered in the American imagination, and yet now so despoiled that it today reaches the ocean a river only in name.
Visit the website for River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado
Read our special package Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater