Who Speaks for the Colorado River?

May 9, 2016 Centennial, CO — Something amazing for the Colorado River happened on March 23, 2014. The Colorado River had not flowed naturally to the sea since the late '90s, but on that day in March, a pulse flow of water was released from the rivers' southernmost dam, the Morelos Dam, and it gushed, then trickled toward the Gulf of California.

Groups of people were there to greet the water as it made its way south from the Morelos Dam: environmentalists from Raise the River coalition, federal water managers from the Bureau of Reclamation which is the U.S. federal authority for water resource management, and citizens from the United States and Mexico. There was anticipation and excitement in the air. The environmentalists observed local townspeople from nearby Mexican towns come to party at the river. This was a true celebration. The teenagers of the town had never witnessed water flowing in this riverbed. Their grandparents remembered the way it used to look.

The Colorado Delta used to be so lush, so fertile. Native peoples had built a way of life dependent on the river delta for thousands of years. Now there is a restoration project underway because extreme drought coupled with population growth has transformed the Colorado River Delta from a verdant riverbed to a sparse desert.

Interactive Map of the Morelos Dam

National Geographic Live!

National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Peter McBride gives a lecture-hall style presentation for the National Geographic Live! series called Chasing Rivers about his experience documenting the release of the water from the Morelos Dam. Raised on a Colorado cattle ranch, he is an accomplished traveler with sixty countries stamped in his passport. For this close-to-home assignment, he followed the Colorado River from its headwaters to its delta by air, by boat, and then by paddleboard. The presentation is an eye-opening glimpse of the effects of water scarcity felt along the Colorado River, enriched with his aerial photos and enlivened with his tales of derring-do. This is one river "challenged with scarcity," McBride says.

Colorado doesn't receive waters from inbound rivers, which makes it a headwater state. La Poudre Pass Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is the source of the 1450-mile-long river, shared among nine U.S. and Mexican states and forty million people. The water tends to flow west of the Rocky Mountains, but most of the people who depend on it live on the plains east of the Rockies, in the Denver metro area. Because of this location disparity, there are "twenty-two tunnels that go under the continental divide to bring water to Denver," McBride explains.

An aerial view of a river dam that is built in an arc.

Glen Canyon Dam from the air. Image credit: Adobe Stock

Reservoir-side photo of a lake and dam showing light colored rock where the water used to be.

Hoover Dam and the bathtub rings at Lake Mead. Image credit: Adobe Stock

The southwest United States is in our second decade of drought and there are thousands of so-called 'straws' sucking water from the various dams along the river. The Hoover Dam created Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona, which is the nation's largest reservoir when full. The Glen Canyon Dam formed Lake Powell, which straddles Utah and Arizona, and is the nation's second largest reservoir when full, but currently it holds a larger volume of water than Lake Mead. McBride notes that both lakes are raised and lowered together. A University of Denver Water Law Review article reveals that from 1983 to 1986, these dams were full to the brim due to spring flooding. But now the water in these dams has receded so low that bathtub rings can be observed showing the water is "below 50% capacity," McBride states.

McBride likes to find historic landscape photos taken along the Colorado River banks before the 1930s and then find that exact spot so he can take a new photo and present these before-and-after scenes together. Strikingly, we can see that in the lower basin the river has run dry. The landscape now looks like a brown desert. He explains how excessive damming of the river has changed not only the landscape, but the wildlife as well. The humpback chub fish is now endangered, with only 8,000 left. McBride explains that this fish likes warm water, but cold water is released from the dams.  

McBride ends his presentation on a positive note, "But some people have restored the Delta. There was a treaty between the United States and Mexico to manage water, and in the spring of 2014, a pulse of water was released from the Morelos Dam. This was the first time water had been released for the river itself." He urges the public to get more engaged with water issues and to be on top of our water consumption.

When asked about the name of the legislation that allowed the pulse flow, McBride responds without hesitation, "Minute 319."

Minute 319?

What a name, with all the appeal of a dry law textbook. But it was big. So big that there was international media coverage surrounding this historic and innovative agreement. Since 2012, there have been 85 articles published about it. To understand what Minute 319 means, one has to first understand the 1944 Water Treaty.

A Little History

1944 Water Treaty

As explained in a 2014 Water International journal article, the 1944 treaty is an agreement between the United States and Mexico, negotiated in part by the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), and allows for a release of a guaranteed annual quantity of 1.5 million acre-feet of water to the U.S.-Mexico border, whether Mexico wants it or not. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to fill an acre of land one foot deep. When the Water Treaty was formed, the authors anticipated the river flow or other factors might change, so to expedite future grievances, it allowed for a unique way to process amendments. Each substantial change would be bi-nationally negotiated and named incrementally, starting with Minute 1, as explained in the article, "Minute 319: a cooperative approach to Mexico-US hydro-relations on the Colorado River," published in Water International journal in 2014.


The IBWC was established under the name International Boundary Commission (IBC) in March of 1889. It got its start from the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a war-ending peace treaty named for the town where it was signed, that negotiated a settlement over a land dispute and ended the U.S.-Mexican War. As stated by the Library of Congress, the terms were that Mexico cede 55% of its territory in exchange for $15 million from the United States to compensate for "war-related damage to Mexican property." Currently, the IBWC is the binational commission responsible for settling differences between the United States and Mexico as a result of border discrepancies and water treaties.

1922 Colorado River Compact

The 1922 Compact divides the Colorado River's watersheds into upper and lower basins with the water flow divided equally between them. This is an inter-state agreement between the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona, and California. The authors of the compact based their allocations on recent rainfall patterns, but 1922 was the wettest year since the 1600s. Each basin is apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet per year, and Mexico is allotted 1.5 million acre-feet per year. Now that we are in extended drought, we are lucky if the river can provide enough water to fulfill the Compact's terms. The Colorado River is over-allocated, and this underestimation is the baseline reason why.

Boulder Canyon Project Act

The Bureau of Reclamation issued a 1922 report calling for dam development to generate electric power and for flood control. By 1928, the Boulder Canyon Project Act was signed and submitted for approval to the seven states involved in the Colorado River Compact. Six of the seven agreed with the terms, and the Hoover Dam was built as a result of funding from this Act. Now, the Colorado River is metered, measured and dammed at many stops along the way, causing many environmental changes as a result.

Minute 242

One environmental change the river has experienced is the reduction of water quality due to runoff from the agricultural sector. The article "Mexico and the United States Assume a Legal Duty to Provide Colorado River Delta Restoration Flows," published in the Review of European Community and International Environmental Law, teaches that runoff from farms increases the salinity of the water. The United States claimed that under the terms of previous treaties and compacts, it had no responsibility to release usable water; only the quantity of water mattered. Because environmental protection was becoming an issue on the forefront, in 1973, the IBWC negotiated Minute 242 to obligate the United States to meet bi-national salinity standards. Even still, the United States did not uphold quality standards to the water released to Mexico.

Dr. Randi Brazeau of the Metropolitan State University of Denver's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences knows this as a matter of course. "Due to irrigation, the water we have been sending down to Mexico is unusable for their needs," She says. "It's brackish water. If we are going to uphold our agreement stemming from the 1944 Water Treaty, we need to send cleaner native waters down."

Biosphere Nature Reserve

In June 1993, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated 3 million acres of Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta as a biosphere nature reserve, after decades of lobbying by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This gave the Delta legal protection, and was an important step toward being able to release water to Mexico for the environment's sake.

Minute 318

After a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the Mexicali valley on April 4, 2010, much of Mexico's water storage and canal infrastructure was badly damaged. In a humanitarian move, the United States allowed Mexico to store its allotment of water deliveries in Lake Mead until the damages could be repaired.

Minute 319

This Minute serves as an example of international cooperation during periods of water shortage. During a five-year pilot period, both countries will support the restoration of the Delta by delivering about 158,000 acre-feet of base flow to the Colorado River Delta area through a one-time pulse flow and a base flow of about 53,000 acre-feet per year. The pulse flow water was water saved by Mexico after the earthquake, and the base flow will be supplied by NGO purchases of Mexican water rights.

As reported in Feedstuffs Journal in 2012, in the years leading up to 2012, there was a disagreement over "perceived treaty noncompliance [that] created tension between the United States and Mexico." Minute 319 allows both countries to have more flexibility to help each other avoid these kinds of disputes. When the United States is experiencing drought, Mexico will receive less water. However, if Lake Mead rises to above an agreed-upon level, Mexico will also have the right to draw additional water beyond the 1.5 million acre-feet that was allocated in the 1944 Water Treaty. Minute 319 also extended the humanitarian measure from Minute 318 which allows Mexico to hold water in Lake Mead and defer delivery until earthquake-damaged infrastructure can be repaired.

Use the above interactive timeline to get a sense of how long the Colorado River has been legislated.

Raise the River

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a unique influence in negotiating legislation changes. NGOs have been campaigning to protect the Delta for twenty years. Raise the River, an NGO comprised of five different environmental non-profits, is involved in advocating for the Colorado River on an ongoing basis. The membership of Raise the River fluidly expresses the current needs of this volunteer coalition. For instance, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund have transitioned away from the coalition now that the policy legislation aspect of Minute 319 is completed, and the National Audubon Society has joined the Raise the River coalition to support conservation and restoration efforts. Currently, the Raise the River partners in Mexico are Pronatura Noroeste and Restauremos el Colorado. Partners in the United States are Sonoran Institute, The Redford Center, National Audubon Society, and The Nature Conservancy. Acting as experts advocating for the people of the affected area and its wildlife, these partners participate in the negotiations of the terms of legislation.

Lynne Bairstow, communications manager for The Redford Center, speaks confidently about the role The Redford Center plays within Raise the River.

"Robert Redford and son Jamie Redford are committed to helping the Colorado River. Because of their commitment to both the river and to storytelling, they were able to produce the documentary 'Watershed,' which tells the stories of several different people connected to the Colorado River and the threats the river faces. 'Watershed' was the catalyst for driving more public attention to the work being done by Raise the River.

"The film gave our coalition a visual story for the public to connect with, and that higher level of visibility allowed fundraising to be accomplished. The reference center and the movie's national screenings gave the public a boost of awareness about the restoration project. In the last couple of weeks, 'Watershed' was released on iTunes, and then upcoming it'll go to Netflix. Our other film 'Renewal' tells the story of the pulse flow, and another, 'Year in Review,' tells the story of the campaign's 2014 accomplishments."


Bairstow, interviewing by phone from northwest Mexico, has first-hand experience in the role the Redford Center and Raise the River have had in the restoration efforts. "When the Delta dried up, invasive plant species moved in. The difference is amazing. Now that we are reclaiming one percent of the water that used to flow to the region, birds have returned to the Delta. The trees we planted three years ago are now very tall."

Raise the River pledged to provide 50,000 acre-feet of water to the Delta in the form of continuous base flows. Stakeholder Keurig Green Mountain provided support for Raise the River to buy and lease water for this use.

Bairstow explains, "Even more important than that initial pulse flow in 2014 are the base flows. They allowed the river to connect to its basin for the first time in more than 60 years. These base flows are more regular and allow regrowth. Some of the water rights that may not be in use can be purchased and that is what the coalition does. There may be a farm with water rights the owners are not planning to use and we can buy the rights and release that water to the environment."

Raise the River also promotes civic engagement with the restoration project. Says Bairstow, "The youth program is an important part of this. Oftentimes, the children have never seen the river.  Elementary- to college-aged students are brought in to the Delta area to help with the work. For instance, in Mexico it was recently the day of the child, and kids came to plant 1,200 trees."

About twenty-five new jobs have been created in 2016 as a result of Raise the River's ongoing involvement in restoration. The jobs are as diverse as plant nursery work, preparing restoration sites, welcoming visitors, and birdwatcher guides. There are now recreation camps in the Delta, and the entrance fees generate revenue for the community.

Bairstow is excited by the progress the Sonoran Institute is making with their new Las Arenitas Treatment Wetland, begun in 2009 and now 70 percent completed. It is an estuary that acts as a biofilter for the Las Arenitas Wastewater Treatment Plant.

"At Las Arenitas, we are taking wastewater and putting it back into the community by filtering it through an estuary populated with specific filter plants," Bairstow exclaims. It's an elegant solution to the water quality problem. The Sonoran Institute describes, "Natural chemical processes and microorganisms living in the wetland's vegetation would break down organic materials over time and improve the water quality."

The 2010 earthquake damage restoration efforts are in progress, but not quite done. Bairstow explains, "Mexico doesn't have a place to store water right now. Much of the infrastructure has been rebuilt, but not all of it. After the earthquake, Mexico lost a lot of water to runoff."


"Minute 319 expires December of 2017 and we are ahead of track in regards to meeting our obligations under that Minute. Our goal was to fundraise $10 million and we've already met that goal."

When asked what the future holds for the next Minute, Bairstow replies, "In our preliminary talks it looks encouraging. Unless the presidential elections influence it negatively, it looks like they may renew the terms. But the goal of Raise the River is to explore ways to keep this project alive regardless of whether the Minute is renewed."

The uniqueness of this project coupled with its community involvement and international visibility due to visual storytelling may allow Raise the River to progress with its own fundraising to accomplish its mission independently.

Bairstow comments, "This is one of the only bi-national environmental projects. We get interest from other river project organizations from all over the world. They want to know how you can facilitate a dialogue that benefits both the diverse political parties and the environment."

"The overarching theme is that water ties in to so many things, from wildlife to the community. A lack of water impacts the community because these are people whose lives were based on the river, and now their way of life is completely different. This area is also an important stop for migrating birds. We have statistics on the number of birds that come to the Delta." The April 2016 'Report From Raise the River to Keurig Green Mountain' quotes a 40% increase of many key bird species.

Each of the parties involved in Raise the River bring a unique set of skills to the table, and all parties are extraordinarily dedicated to this project; to the Colorado River. If it weren't for NGOs like Raise the River, then the river, its people and its wildlife wouldn't have a voice. Its fate would be determined by policymakers and politicians who spend months hammering out the details of legal agreements such as the 1944 Water Treaty, but who may not consult the people and wildlife whose lives depend on the quality of the river. Following the examples of Peter McBride and The Redford Center via Raise the River, the health of the Colorado River will be impacted by the power of storytelling to raise awareness about the work of the advocates dedicated to making a difference.