Saving North America’s Nile — a collaborative model for river restoration worldwide

I have been reading stories by the boatload about Lake Mead and the Colorado River drying up, and reading them,  it is hard to feel anything but despair. The thing is – there is another story, a story of patient and collaborative work to help restore the river often called the “Nile of North America”, which could become a model for trans-national river restoration efforts throughout the world.

Raise the River, a unique partnership of six U.S. and Mexican NGOs committed to restoring the Colorado River Delta that has worked with policymakers, water agencies and governmental representatives from the U.S. and Mexico since 2012 to cooperatively create historic change for the Colorado River Delta, puts it in a nutshell:

The Colorado River is one of the world’s hardest‐working and most‐loved rivers. It provides water to more than 36 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland in seven states in the U.S. and two states in Mexico, and serves as the lifeblood for native tribes, seven National Wildlife Refuges, and 11 National Parks. It produces 4,200 megawatts of hydropower and supports a $26-billion tourism and recreation economy.

Raise the River

Flowing for more than six million years, the “American Nile’s” Delta once stretched over two million acres – with vast wetlands and waterways extending from the southwestern tip of the U.S. to the Gulf of California in Mexico. The Delta was the life-giving cradle of prosperity and culture in the region.

Today, the Delta is a remnant of its former self. As The American West grew ever more demanding of its river, flows dwindled and the river dried up. Plants, animals and marine life began to disappear. Native communities that had once thrived along its banks for a thousand years began to see their traditions and culture wither away.

Over the past fifteen years, policymakers, water agencies and non-governmental organizations from the U.S. and Mexico have begun working cooperatively to create historic change for the delta. In 2012, we hit a milestone. That’s when the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to a set of Delta restoration provisions in a historic, binational water-sharing agreement known as Minute 319.

This innovative policy framework allowed — for the first time — the U.S. and Mexico to share water surpluses in times of plenty and reductions in times of drought, provided incentives for leaving water in storage, and conserved water through joint investments in projects from water users in both countries. It also laid the foundation for ongoing environmental restoration projects in the Colorado River Delta, including the limited duration pulse flow that took place in spring 2014, bringing temporary relief to the Delta and allowing the river to flow to the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998.”

The “pulse flow” is a way to imitate, on a smaller scale, the kind of periodic floods that used to inundate the Colorado River Delta, keeping the river corridor healthy by spreading seeds of native vegetation and creating conditions in which those native seedlings could thrive. The 2014 pulse agreed to by both Mexico and the US, released 105,392 acre-feet (130 million cubic meters) of water down the Colorado River into the Delta channel, where water has not flowed regularly since 1960. 

Since then, ecologists and restoration workers have been gathering information that shows how “a relatively small amount of targeted and regular water flow, combined with on-the-ground restoration activities, can revive and expand the native habitat that is so vital to the Delta’s people, birds, and wildlife,” says Raise the River. 

“The ongoing water flows represent a sign of hope for the people, birds, and other wildlife that depend on a healthy river. It is an unprecedented and unique initiative in the global context, that we hope will become a model for future trans-national river restoration efforts throughout the world.”

On May 1, 2021, under Minute 323, the release of a total of 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons) began from Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and will continue until Oct. 11, YES magazine reported.

It is a long-term project, of course. Grassroots organizers began this work some two decades ago. “We had a vision that someday the Colorado River could be connected again to the sea and to local communities,” said Francisco Zamora of the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Restoration work has not only provided local residents with jobs, but inspired them to believe the delta can flourish again, even for young people who had never seen it happen before. “It’s not only about wildlife, or birds and trees,” he told YES. “It’s also about the people.”

Collaborative work, long-term planning, and learning from small scale projects is key to success. Steve Nelson, a retired Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service employee who has tracked changes in the Delta for decades, says working with people and looking for ways everyone can benefit is vital. “Everyone has an interest in a healthy Delta, and I don’t think there’s any opportunity for collaboration with any interested party that hasn’t been utilized by the Sonoran Institute. It’s very impressive to see that.”

The Colorado River is the principal river of the southwestern United States and northwest Mexico. The 1,450-mile (2,330 km) river drains an expansive, arid watershed that encompasses parts of seven U.S. and two Mexican states. Rising in the central Rocky Mountains in the U.S., the river flows generally southwest across the Colorado Plateau before reaching Lake Mead on the Arizona–Nevada line, where it turns south towards the international border. After entering Mexico, the Colorado forms a large delta, emptying into the Gulf of California between Baja California and Sonora.
By Ken Lund from Reno, Nevada, USA – Crossing Colorado River, Bullhead City, Arizona, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In its restoration work under Minute 319, Raise the River engaged over 9,800 local residents, school children, and volunteers from around the world in on-site restoration work and environmental education programs and created more than 140 jobs in 2016 alone. More than 1,000 acres of habitat along the river’s main channel was restored between 2013 and 2017. More than 230,000 native cottonwoods and willow trees were planted, and a water trust was established in Mexico that permanently acquired water rights from voluntary sellers in the Mexicali Valley, funded by more than $10M raised from U.S. and Mexico foundations, corporations, federal agencies, and individuals.

That successful habitat restoration under Minute 319 laid the foundation for Minute 323. “On a larger scale, this project shows how governments and stakeholders with diverse interests can come together to manage the river for people and nature in the face of drought. If it can be done across international borders, then surely we can do it in the rest of the Colorado River Basin and other places in the world,” says Raise the River.

Awareness of the impact of the warming climate on the Colorado also has led to reduced demands on the river. EcoWatch reported in 2020 that use of Colorado River water in the three states of the river’s lower basin fell to a 33-year low in 2019. ”Arizona, California, and Nevada combined to consume just over 6.5 million acre-feet last year, according to an annual audit from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the lower basin. That is about 1 million acre-feet less than the three states are entitled to use under a legal compact that divides the Colorado River’s waters.”

The “conservation tool box” includes reducing demand by such things as city incentives to remove lawns and replace inefficient toilets, showerheads, and washing machines, and farmers lining earthen canals with concrete to prevent seepage and fallowing land, and bolstering supply through recycling and reuse, groundwater treatment, and desalination. In 2019, the seven states in the watershed collectively modified rules for mandatory water-use restrictions as Lake Mead levels drop.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico water resources program, told Circle of Blue in early 2020 that there has been a shift in the perception of what’s possible. “It shows that the expectation that a growing population and a robust agricultural economy require more water is wrong.” He is optimistic about the basin’s capacity to wield the tools of conservation effectively, so environmental doom is not  inevitable. “We’re seeing success in the transition away from the tragedy narrative.”


Raise the River website.

The Colorado River Runs Again. YES magazine, Aug. 24, 2021

Remarkable Drop in Colorado River Water Use a Sign of Climate Adaptation. Circle of Blue in EcoWatch, Jun. 23, 2020

Colorado River Basin. The Nature Conservancy.

Restoring the Colorado River Estuary. Sonoran Institute.

Opinion | Not Dried Up: US-Mexico Water Cooperation. Mexico Today, Oct 23, 2020