Colorado River Flowing in Its Delta Again, But Restoration Hangs in the Balance

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The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. While this is welcome news for birds and people, the long-term progress to keep the Colorado River alive in Mexico with habitat restoration and water deliveries depends on high stakes negotiations currently underway.

For the third time since 2021, the United States and Mexico are collaborating to deliver water to improve conditions in the long-desiccated delta. Environmental water deliveries began mid-March and will continue into October, ensuring the river flows through the summer’s heat, making restored riverside forests and wetlands more hospitable to birds like Abert’s Towhees and Crissal Thrashers and other wildlife including beavers and lynxes. We know that birds rely on water in the Delta as they migrate to locations all over the United States.

Restoration in the Colorado River Delta is implemented by Raise the River, a coalition of NGOs including Audubon, in partnership with U.S. and Mexican federal agencies. Funds, water, and collaboration for this work were committed first in Minute 319 and again in Minute 323, the United States–Mexico treaty agreements that have been widely hailed for modernizing Colorado River management with a host of benefits to water users in both countries including rules for sharing water shortages, as well as work to use relatively small volumes of water to revive the delta for wildlife and people. The terms of Minute 323 sunset in 2026, but delta restoration efforts remain a work in progress.

The good news: the United States and Mexico are poised to negotiate a successor agreement to Minute 323 in parallel with new federal rulemaking in the United States for Colorado River management. Domestic Colorado River rules, like the binational agreements, have for decades been the result of consensus-based negotiations, in this setting between the seven Colorado River Basin States with concurrence of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. This domestic rulemaking also has a 2026 deadline.

The bad news: at the moment, the Colorado River Basin states appear to be nowhere near consensus, with disagreements about which states, and which water users, will cut back when there’s not enough to satisfy all. These are difficult and high stakes negotiations. Failure to reach agreement increases the risk of water supply crises and could even throw the dispute in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

That brings me back to the Abert’s Towhees and Crissal Thrashers, the beavers and lynxes in the Delta. If the Colorado River Basin states fail to reach consensus, there’s considerable risk that the work of restoring the Colorado River in its delta comes to a halt. Delta restoration depends on binational consensus, and binational consensus depends on a U.S. domestic consensus. It’s an extraordinarily complex decision-making framework for governance of water supply for 40 million people. The failure to reach consensus may create problems for some people who use Colorado River water, but it is certain to create collateral damage in Colorado River ecosystems including the Delta.

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