Just Add Water

I was interviewing a local flood control engineer recently about the lovely little wetland that’s grown up in a retention pond up near my work. It’s located just off one of the channels that carries flood flows down through the city, and its primary purpose is to catch and hold water for a while to reduce contaminant load that gets to the Rio Grande in flash flood events.

When I described it as a “wetland,” the engineer cautioned me about a linguistic subtlety. Its purpose, he explained, is not wildlife habitat, and to call it a “wetland” is to move it into a bureaucratic category for which it was not intended. So while it’s developed a lovely cattail marsh, with redwing blackbirds and grackels and all manner of travelling water fowl, it’s not a wildlife habitat site. Call that a happy accident.

That issue writ large is the situation at two much more famous western water sites I’ve been reading about lately: the Cienega de Santa Clara in the Colorado River Delta, and Owens Lake.

Courtesy NASA, the Colorado River Delta, with Cienega de Santa Clara in the upper right

Courtesy NASA, the Colorado River Delta, with Cienega de Santa Clara in the upper right

The Cienega is at the end of the Welton-Mohawk drain, which was built to drain off brackish ag runoff from the Yuma area, to keep it from sullying the Colorado River. Where the drain ends in Mexico, a remarkable wetland has developed which has become one of the best wildlife habitats in the Lower Colorado.

Similarly, nature has apparently gone gangbusters in the Owens Valley as a result of a project that was nominally about adding enough water to keep down dust left after LA began siphoning away water a century ago for urban use, according to this KABC story:

The wind and dust made Owens Lake the largest single source of air pollution in the United States. However, that changed over the last ten years. Huge pipes, hundreds of smaller bubblers and thousands of tiny drippers, allow water to spread out across the vast expanse of Owens Lake. As a result, acres of green grass have sprouted on the lakebed and migratory birds have returned to the ponds. But all the water, roads and dikes are used for the sole purpose of keeping the dust down.

There are some really interesting water policy issues entangled here. In the Lower Colorado, a rich debate is underway about how to keep the Cienega alive given a plan to put the brackish water now flowing its way to other use. The Bureau of Reclamation has plans to restart the Yuma Desalting Plant and cleaning up said brackish water to put to what are considered, in U.S. water law, “beneficial uses”. That means drinking and growing food. In-stream flows and habitat are not considered “beneficial” under the law.

I’ll have more on the Cienega in coming months. I’m hoping to get down there for a writing project I’m working on, to visit both the Cienega itself and also the farms on both sides of the border that put water to what we more traditionally call “beneficial use.” In the meantime, I’m hoping to sneak off at lunch to the little pond by my office and check out the redwing blackbirds.


  1. A similar situation happened when dirt was removed from a piece of vacant land in Belen. A ‘wetland’ was created because of the high water table. It has become a wintering place for waterfowl, an important stop-over for migrating waterfowl, and nesting grounds for Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets. It has been affectionately referred to by birders as the Taco Bell Marsh, since it is located across from that fast food restaurant. See my post: on my other blog: http://www.judysjottings.wordpress.com/2008/08/05/collaboration-to-save-the-belen-marsh/.

  2. John,

    Yuma, a delightful place. I lived there in the early 70’s. This time of year, it’s not so delightful. I’d schedule a trip in November if given the choice.

    Also, to experience Yuma properly will take several days. It’s best to have a ‘guide’ to see the very best places that Yuma has to offer a visitor with water interests as you are.

    To wet your appetite (very bad pun intended), Delbert will give you an Internet tour of the place.

    Google Maps is a wonderful thing. With this ability, we are just a few clicks away from getting a bird’s eye view of our tour stops. As in all logical things, I will start the tour up river and end at the border. Are we ready?

    Stop 1. Imperial Dam. http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=32.88193,-114.46651&spn=0.017912,0.038581&z=15
    Here is where it starts in water distribution in the Yuma Valley. What to see: On Calif side – diversion of IID and start of the All American Canal. Ariz side – start of Wellton Mohawk Canal. What’s interesting? The settling ponds on the Calif side removes much of the sediment from the river’s water before its trip down the All American Canal. Interested in a small side trip? Check out Senator’s Wash http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=32.904038,-114.481852&spn=0.008954,0.01929&z=16 which is a charged pumping reservoir. (Delbert use to go swimming here in the 70’s).

    Continuing down river takes us to stop 2. Laguna Dam. http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=32.827858,-114.500252&spn=0.00224,0.004823&z=18 Unique because it was the first Dam on the lower Colorado. Some history here. You can see that it was a Diversion Dam at one time (look closely at the map). There was also an abandoned Gold Mine several hundred feet away from the Dam. The only other thing to note is that it was built before there was the Bureau of Reclamation. It was the United States Reclamation Service USRS. The Dam is over 100 years old. On the Arizona side is a small bridge with Swastikas molded into the design of the concrete. I’ve always wondered about that.

    Next stop (optional for all but the die-hards) is where the mighty Gila River dumps in the Colorado. http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=32.720428,-114.557936&spn=0.002243,0.004823&z=18 Delbert remembers many a weekend night where he did his Catfishing and beer drinking at this spot. The Gila never had much flow, as I remember, but the spot was nice and fishing agreeable.

    No visit to Yuma is complete without visiting the prison. http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=32.727603,-114.614756&spn=0.002243,0.004823&z=18 . It is an interesting tour. Well worth your time. Most of everyone has heard of the prison in history books and TV Westerns.

    Some place quite unique and not too well known is the Yuma Siphon (just down river from the prison). Here, one of the main canals intersects the Colorado River. Actually, a pretty neat feat of engineering for its day. http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=32.728908,-114.620715&spn=0.004486,0.009645&z=17 . If you want to know more about it, there is a USGS video about it on UTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAE_RDkT1zQ . The narrator is Shannon Tinnell. Shannon is one of the best guys on the river. It’s a pretty good video about measuring the flow of the siphon.

    By now, you are thinking that Yuma is an interesting place and you’re right – it is. Water wise, the next stop is the Morelos Dam. This is the FINAL Dam on the Colorado River. http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=32.704924,-114.728755&spn=0.004487,0.009645&t=h&z=17 From here, the last of the water is taken from the river and diverted into the Alamo Canal in Mexico. I’d like to point out a few facts. Morelos Dam is operated by Mexico. Any releases of water down river from the Dam is controlled by Mexico. The reason I point this out is that some of the information that I’ve read on blogs (and elsewhere) about releases by Glen Canyon Dam providing ‘excess’ water would probably benefit Cienega with the extra water in the river. I don’t think that any of it got past Morelos Dam. However, that’s my guess.

    Mexico’s share of the River is 1.5 million acre feet per year. I read somewhere that 90% of that was taken at the Alamo Canal in Los Algodones. BTW John, Los Algodones is a good place to get your teeth worked on or buy prescription drugs. A favorite with winter visitors.

    I mentioned that Morelos Dam pretty much takes the last drop of the natural river. Our next stop is where the Colorado River departs the United States. http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=32.494271,-114.813609&spn=0.008995,0.01929&t=h&z=16 Looking at the Google Map pretty much confirms the statement. I also mentioned that Morelos Dam diverted 90% of the water of Mexico’s allotment.

    The other 10% is diverted at San Luis, Arizona in this Canal http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=32.486742,-114.786841&spn=0.002249,0.004823&t=h&z=18 .

    So where does the Colorado get the water for the delta? Good question. The discharge you mention from the American side happens here http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=32.662234,-114.748592&spn=0.002245,0.004823&t=h&z=18
    Granted, it doesn’t look like much on the map as the discharge channel is obscured by the vegetation. If memory serves me correctly (don’t quote me), the name of the place is ‘Mode6’ .

    If you make the trip to Yuma. The last visit probably will be the Drop2 site. You can find it here http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=32.708444,-115.037649&spn=0.008973,0.01929&z=16 . Yes, I know that Google Maps doesn’t show it. Google Maps doesn’t show other things either…

    That rounds out our trip today and thanks for taking Grady River Tours.” We hoped you enjoyed the ride.”


  3. Exactly Hank. A county I used to work in in Western WA state was required to designate sinks in our town as ‘wetland’ after certain criteria were met. Lots of landowners did stuff to prevent designation. Bad stuff.



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