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Wade Davis on Loss in the Colorado River Delta

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.