This video and essay project was originally published in 2012 in the now archived Arid: A Journal of Desert Art, Design and Ecology


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The vast, binational Colorado River Delta once supported nearly two million acres of fertile wetlands, riparian forests, labyrinthine lagoons, and a colossal estuary. This enormous desert floodplain was long ago completely redesigned, however—with nearly every drop in its once unruly waterways methodically repurposed for “beneficial consumptive use” by fertile farms and expanding cities along both sides of the border. Despite a river management regimen that has long privileged the interests of humanity over nature, isolated islands of wilderness have nevertheless found water (and thus a living) within this intensively mediated landscape. These disconnected habitats have taken advantage of the administrative losses of this highly regulated (and now perilously over-allocated) system. These wetlands, in sum, profit from problems in the plumbing—leaking canals, excess irrigation, unwanted runoff, or the occasional unexpected flood.

Only 10% of the original Delta remains—almost all of it located in Mexico. More than 350,000 birds still regularly use what is left, finding a home amid more than half a million acres of profitably cultivated farmland. The three wetlands this project describes are located at the periphery of this agricultural zone; they are off-channel wetlands—located at some distance from the original mainstem of the Colorado River. These wetlands are also completely artificially created, and owe their existence to events that unfolded on the opposite side of the border over the course of more than 70 years. Only one of the three wetlands was intentionally created and enjoys a reasonably secure future. The other two remain problematically dependent upon powerfully entrenched governmental agencies in the United States. The complicated stories that define this precarious but interdependent relationship between the Mexican wetlands and their U.S. water source are as fascinating as the sublimely beautiful wetlands themselves.

The oldest of the three is nestled in the isolated sand dunes of Andrade Mesa, located two miles south of the international border and about 17 miles east of the city of Mexicali, Baja California. The Andrade Mesa wetlands sprung from these dunes in the 1940s during the construction of the All American Canal—a gigantic irrigation ditch that runs along the U.S. side of the border, rerouting a significant share of Colorado River water westward to California. As canals dug through sand dunes can do, the All American Canal leaked—the escaping seepage migrating southward and into the welcoming embrace of what would become 6,500 acres of lovely, isolated, and critically important lagoons and wetland habitat. More than 100 species of birds now call the Andrade Mesa wetlands home, including the Endangered Species Act listed Yuma Clapper Rail, a secretive bird found only in the Delta and lower Colorado region. For nearly 70 years, these wetlands remained secretive as well, as they were not even discovered until 2002. [1]

The spigot that irrigated this accidental ecosystem was shut off in 2010. A consortium of U.S. Federal and municipal agencies, armed with 365 million dollars and water conservation rhetoric of sweeping proportions, recently lined the All American Canal with concrete in order to reroute the “rescued” seepage to suburban San Diego. Civic groups on both sides of the border sued the U.S. government over the harm that the lining would do to the endangered species of the Andrade Mesa wetlands, but were ultimately rebuffed by an act of Congress. [2] The protracted litigation over this issue made one thing clear: the enforceability of the ESA in protecting an animal or plant once it haplessly crosses an international border is far from resolved. And as Delta researchers anticipated, the Andrade Mesa Wetlands have declined since the lining was completed; absent efforts at remediation, 98% of the water within them will likely disappear. [3]

The following video documents several of the freshwater marshes and saline mudflats of the Andrade Mesa wetlands complex near Ejido Irapuato during the winter and spring of 2012.

The vast and majestic Ciénega de Santa Clara, found in the Mexican state of Sonora about 50 miles south of Arizona, is the largest and most biologically significant wetland in the entire Colorado River Delta. The Ciénega sprung to life in 1977 as a result of an international salinity crisis that compelled the U.S. to divert salty agricultural runoff into an abandoned and degraded stretch of once lush Delta floodplain, unexpectedly and spectacularly reviving the site to a degree no one ever thought possible. The Arizona irrigation district at fault for creating the crisis that eventually created the wetland had been dumping its unwanted return flows into the Colorado River since the 1950s, eventually spiking the salinity levels of the water delivered downriver to Mexico. Mexican crops were killed, as a result, and formerly fertile Mexican soil destroyed. The U.S. remedied this economic catastrophe by building a 73 mile-long, border-crossing concrete canal (named the MODE: Main Outlet Drain Extension) that diverted this saline runoff away from Mexican farmland and into what was to become the 40,000 acre Ciénega, a now shimmering, extravagant, and critical habitat for more than 260 species of local and migratory birds.

Along with the MODE canal, the U.S. built a gigantic desalinization plant in Yuma, Arizona, to recoup this water for eventual stateside use. Although completed in 1993, the Yuma Desalting Plant ran only intermittently until 2010, when municipal water agencies from California, Arizona, and Nevada (along with the Bureau of Reclamation) chipped in 23 million to restart it at one third capacity for a ten-month trial run. The expectation was, of course, that the drought-stressed cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix could lay claim to the Ciénega’s desalted water. Predictably wary of this plan, Delta scientists, environmentalists, and the Mexican government managed to successfully negotiate an historic binational agreement that provided for replacement water for the MODE during this pilot run—water provided by both countries and specifically (and significantly) earmarked just for the Ciénega. [4]   This agreement also provided for funds to monitor the wetland’s health during the course of this experiment, which ultimately determined that (despite a 30% reduction in water and a 20% increase in overall salinity) the Ciénega proved resilient in the face of this short-term disturbance. [5]

The Yuma Desalting Plant, however, remains a significant threat to the Ciénega’s future. With its $256 million Federal price tag, Reclamation continues to promote the plant as an “integral water conservation and recycling tool” for the Colorado River basin’s now decade-long drought. The U.S. can indeed legally claim all of the Ciénega’s water, in fact, because the 100,000 acre feet per year that typically flows through the MODE is in excess of Mexico’s legal entitlement of Colorado River water. [6]   From the perspective of U.S. agencies, then, restarting a pricey and long-neglected facility to ameliorate a southwestern water shortage seems like a perfectly rational thing to do. Political Science professor Brett Birdsong sums up the irony of the Ciénega’s predicament with his assertion that the wetland owes its viability to the mistakes of the past, while still bearing the risk that the mistakes will be cured. [7]   The Ciénega is indeed in a peculiar position: problematically tethered to two countries and to two competing imperatives one finds increasingly common in the world’s arid regions. There is hope for this situation in that both countries have now formally recognized the critical value of the Ciénega, though a permanent solution has yet to be reached.

The following video documents sections of this expansive, elegant wetland from its north-facing juncture with the MODE, from the southwest, and from the center of the site during the winter and spring of 2012.

The story of Las Arenitas is decidedly more sanguine. Like Andrade Mesa and the Ciénega, it’s an entirely anthropogenic site, but unlike the others, this place was no accident. Las Arenitas represents a highly successful and collaborative remedy for two big borderland challenges: wetland restoration and municipal infrastructure improvement. Mexico’s border cities have long been financially and operationally stymied by NAFTA-fueled population explosions, and in the case of the rapidly expanding city of Mexicali, existing wastewater infrastructure had become overwhelmed. From the 1960s until 2007, Mexicali’s burgeoning municipal and industrial sewage demanded an escape route—and found one it did in the northbound channel of the border-crossing New River. This effluent’s reception, once crossed (of course) was predictably and unrelentingly antagonistic. In eventual response to the crisis, a consortium of binational agencies [8] built a new wastewater treatment plant along an uninhabited stretch of desert just south of town, successfully rerouting 45% of the city’s sewage away from the border and out of the New River watershed. Delta environmental activists, keenly aware that any water (even treated effluent) could be a lifeline for the Delta, forged an agreement with Mexicali officials in 2008 to dedicate 30% of this treatment plant’s discharge to the Hardy River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Under the right conditions—the logic held—some of this treated effluent could not only restore the Rio Hardy riparian corridor, but might also flow from the Hardy into the Colorado Riverbed itself—thereby possibly reconnecting the water’s ancient and long disrupted route to the Gulf of California. It’s an effort at reconnection by way of the sinks and toilets of 300,000 people, but an historic reconnection nonetheless. These environmental NGOs (including Mexico’s Pronatura Noroeste and the U.S. based Sonoran Institute) also successfully negotiated with the Mexican government to create a vast and lovely manufactured wetland next to this new treatment plant—a now dramatically beautiful site where thousands of local and migratory birds flap, squawk, and swirl alongside foamy effluent under a dramatic desert sky. At Las Arenitas, workers from the local Ejidos are now planting willows, cottonwoods, and cattails, while bulldozers and backhoes channelize the lagoons to facilitate the delicate hydrologic meander required to naturally scrub contaminants from this repurposed water.

It is an extraordinary, dual-duty place, and the following video documents this miraculous site during the winter and spring of 2012.

There are many other critical islands of Delta wilderness in addition to Andrade Mesa, the Ciénega, and Las Arenitas. The riparian corridor along the mainstem of Colorado River has proven a particularly fruitful zone for restoration—less expensive to work with than the tactically challenging off-channel wetlands this project describes. The Sonoran Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, and Pronatura, with the support of the Mexican government, have partnered to create a Water Trust to establish conservation easements and acquire water rights along sections of the river for habitat renewal and dedicated instream flows. So far, they’ve secured 3,000 acre-feet of water per year and (with the help of CONAGUA—Mexico’s National Water Commission) 1,200 acres of land as well. Pronatura Noroeste Director Osvel Hinojosa asserts that significant Delta restoration can occur with only 1% of the river’s total flow, and with only 3% of the irrigation water rights of the Mexicali Valley. The long-term goal is to secure 50,000 acre feet per year for permanent instream river flows, and for a 250,000 acre feet “pulse flow” every 4-5 years to simulate historical episodes of dramatic flooding—epic surges that once scoured the floodplain, flushed out salts and other pollutants, and established the native cottonwoods and willows that require flooding for their seeds to germinate. [9]  The NGOs are hoping that permanent base flows for the river can be secured with entirely Mexican resources, but securing those critical pulse flows will be a far more complex proposition. Recreating these big floods will require elaborate cooperation and coordination with the United States, in part because there is no reservoir to store and release a required “intentionally created surplus” on the Mexican side of the Colorado River. In an ideal scenario, the U.S. would dedicate some of its own Colorado River allocation for this effort, but this type of agreement is not yet assured. The recent examples of the All American Canal lining project and the Yuma Desalting Plant pilot run demonstrate that some U.S. water agencies are intent on plugging every leak in the system and apprehending any possible renegade flow. [10]  Outlaw flows, unfortunately, are exactly what the Delta needs. The dramatic El Niño floods of the 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated that wildlife could miraculously rebound if gifted with even relatively small amounts of unexpected water. These floods astonished the experts and sparked the notion among conservationists, scientists, and government agencies that the Delta was not the lost cause that so many assumed for so many years.

The complexities of future binational cooperation notwithstanding, global warming will not make the conservationists’ work any easier. An anticipated increase of 5 to 6 degrees F mean temperature for the Colorado River Basin over the course of this century is expected to diminish the accumulation of snow and snowmelt in the upper basin, and increase evapotranspiration rates in the lower basin, thereby decreasing average annual runoff between 5% and 15%. [11]  Warmer temperatures in the Delta could also stress fisheries, change the migratory patterns of birds, shift the geographic range of species, and facilitate the expansion of various pests and pathogens. [12]  Despite these additional challenges, Delta conservationists strive for the policy shifts that will legally dedicate water for ecological values on both sides of the border, while they organize on-the-ground community-based restoration efforts in Mexico, one willow and one cottonwood, one acre and one acre-foot at a time. [13]

It’s worth noting at this point that the Colorado River’s water (as well as its water infrastructure) once bound this region together. Until the 1930s, a common canal irrigated the Delta agriculture of both countries, and the border was physically, culturally, and economically porous and permeable. [14]   Construction of the Hoover Dam and the All American Canal, though—along with the 1944 Water Treaty and more recent actions, have fostered a far more positional stance about transnational water. The challenge now, as Delta activists are demonstrating, is to use water as an instrument of community building within Mexico and the United States, and also to use water to once again reconnect the two nations with the shared goal of restoring the whole region’s environment, culture, and economy.

These activists are decisively focused and organized. They effectively engage existing institutional structures, persuasively challenge established paradigms, and deploy stealth and highly successful micro-political practices in pursuit of their goals. Artists and cultural producers often deploy the types of organizational acumen, accountability, and agency that these Delta activists demonstrate. They also often find themselves working around the institutional structures (and challenging the institutional paradigms) that can limit their work’s access and capacity. These adaptive strategies are in no way new or novel; artists regularly confront and overcome the cultural confinements they face as common and expected conditions of their work life. Cultural producers who find and foster connections between established disciplines and lines of critical inquiry, furthermore, can often move more fluidly, with even greater reciprocal agency, through the interconnected ethical demands required of us all during this time of urgent ecological and social need.

These manufactured wetlands inspire circumspection and humility for their precarious fragility, as well as awe and respect for their remarkable resiliency. The Delta defenders in this story deftly negotiate and circumvent boundaries and obstacles in synch with the border-defying watercourses and wildlife they protect. The nuanced, perceptual ground truths of the wetlands themselves create a territory of shared values—a territory we can all occupy—whether or not we can navigate the line.


[1] Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta et al., "Andrade Mesa Wetlands of the All-American Canal," Natural Resources Journal 42, (2002): 899-914.

[2] A detailed analysis of the history of this litigation, which involved not only environmental organizations but also a community of Mexican farmers whose livelihood is threatened by the lining of the All American Canal, can be found in Alfonso Cortez Lara’s, Megan Donovan’s and Scott Whiteford’s article "The All American Canal Lining Dispute: An American Resolution Over Mexican Groundwater Rights?," El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, (2009): 134-142.

[3] Zamora-Arroyo, Francisco, Peter Culp, and Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta, "Looking Beyond the Border: Environmental Consequences of the All American Canal Project in Mexico and Potential Binational Solutions in The U.S.-Mexican Border Environment," SCERP Monograph Series no. 13, (2006): 30.

[4] Minute 316 (2010) of the U.S./Mexico Water Treaty of 1944 lays out the details of this binational coordination. Minute 316 could not have been created without Minute 306 (from 2000), an agreement that establishes a theoretical framework for binational cooperation to preserve the Colorado River Delta’s ecological values.

[5] Flessa, Karl, et al., "Environmental Monitoring of the Ciénega de Santa Clara, a Mexican Wetland: Transboundary Water and the Yuma Desalting Plant," University of Arizona Power Point presentation, (2011).

[6] The U.S./Mexico Water Treaty of 1944 entitles Mexico to 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water per year—on average 10% of the Colorado’s total annual flow. An “acre foot” is the standard measure for allocating water in the United States, and is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land to the depth of one foot. For perspective, an average U.S. family of four will use an acre-foot of water in one year.

[7] Birdsong, Bret C., "Séances, Ciénegas, and Slop: Can Collaboration Revive the Colorado Delta?" Scholarly Works, Paper 295 (2008): 861.

[8] The International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC) and the North American Development Bank (NADBank), through the EPA-sponsored Border Environment Infrastructure Fund (BEIF), paid 55% of the $50 million project costs for this project, and the Mexican Government paid the remaining 45%.

[9] Francisco Zamora-Arroyo, et al., "Conservation Priorities in the Colorado River Delta, Mexico and the United States," Sonoran Institute, (2005): 35.

[10] Another example of this effort on the part of the U.S. to eliminate the “waste” of unscheduled or unregulated flows or floods is the recent construction (2010) of the Drop 2 Reservoir in alongside California’s All American Canal. Completed with funds from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, this reservoir will be able to impound between 50,000 and 300,000 acre feet of water from excess delivery to Mexico—water that could’ve potentially benefitted Delta wildlife.

[11] Secure Water Act Section 9503(c)—Reclamation Climate Change and Water 2011, U.S. Department of the Interior Policy and Administration Bureau of Reclamation (2011): 21-55.

[12] Secure Water Act Section 9503(c), 57-58.

[13] A detailed summary of these localized restoration efforts can be found in "Community-Based Restoration of Desert Wetlands: The Case of the Colorado River Delta" (Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta, et al.) U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, (2005): 637-645.

[14] Garcia-Acevedo, Maria Rosa, “The Confluence of Water, Patterns of Settlement, and Constructions of the Border in the Imperial and Mexicali Valleys (1900-1999)” Reflections on Water: New Approaches to Transboundary Conflicts and Cooperation, Ed. Joachim Blatter and Helen Ingram, Cambridge: MIT Press (2001): 72-74.