The Ciénega de Santa Clara and the question of “waste”

It’s important to be clear of what we mean by “waste” when we talk about “wasting” water. Because it’s always going someplace, and doing something.

In Albuquerque, for example, we talk about reusing effluent from our sewage treatment plant. But we currently treat that water and put it back in the Rio Grande, where it supports riparian habitat and downstream water users. To them, it’s not being “wasted”.

Luke Runyon at radio station KUNC in Colorado did a great piece on the Ciénega de Santa Clara, in the Colorado River’s former delta, that illustrates the point. “Waste” water from agricultural practices in the United States was for decades diverted through a canal onto the mudflats where the Colorado River used to meet the Sea of Cortez. There, a fabulous wetland emerged, some of the best habitat of its sort remaining in the desiccated region.

But with pressure to stop “wasting” that water, the Ciénega is in perpetual peril:

As the Colorado River basin heats up and dries out like climate projections predict, Butrón-Méndez is concerned people will stop thinking of the water that flows to the wetland as waste, find a way to use it and, in turn, harm the Ciénega.



  1. We have the very same issue in Santa Fe, where the Water Division regards the effluent from the POTW as a wasted resource. It actually supports a riparian ecosystem in the Santa Fe River. The Division is pursuing a pipeline to dump it in the Rio Grande in an attempt to get return flow credits.

  2. John: These comments above reflect the state of water management throughout the West where by decree water has been monetized and where “beneficial use” – more alfalfa, more corn, more cattle, more development- overrides the importance of healthy riparian systems. In the latter, no water goes to “waste.”

  3. Thanks for mentioning the Ciénega de Santa Clara in the Colorado River delta. This is one of the features that I was most curious about when I started studying the delta after the April 2010 earthquake struck the area. I am a geologist, so I was looking at how the earthquake affected the rocks beneath the delta and the delta above. Do you know if the KUNC radio piece is online?

  4. Songbird – Minute 323 (the addendum to the US-Mexico treaty dealing with Mexico’s piece of the DCP) includes water and related plans and process for continuation of the environmental flow projects in the Colorado River Delta.

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