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Experimental Flow in Colorado River Delta Makes History

river delta colorado
Smithsonian

An experimental water flow was released into the Colorado River Delta earlier this year, and the results were historic.

After being dammed and diverted for decades, an experimental flow of water cruised down the Colorado River Delta and reached the Gulf of California for the first time in 16 years.

Scientists sent a pulse of 105,00 acre-feet of water from the Morelos Dam to the U.S.-Mexico boarder on May 15. The eight-week water release boosted vegetation growth and reportedly improved habitats for birds in the area.

Dubbed Minute 319, this Colorado River Delta experiment is the result of a 2012 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to rejuvenate plant and animal environments in the area.

Pamela Nagler of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Biological Science Center in Tucson, Ariz., told reporters, “The pulse reversed a 13-year decline in vegetation.”

Scientists also reported a 43 percent increase of green vegetation in the wetted zone and a 23 percent increase on the river’s boarders. Satellite imagery also illustrates the impact of this experimental flow, when comparing images from August 2013 to August 2014. According to these images, approximately 5,000 acres of the Colorado River Delta saw greening and growth of riparian zones.

Karl Flessa, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona and co-chief scientist of the Minute 319 Science Team, told reporters the water may help annuals to grow and, “the existing vegetation … has certainly benefitted from the flow.”

For now it appears the flow has changed the Colorado River Delta ecology, but for more experiments like this to take place, future negotiations between Mexico and the U.S. need to happen.

Researchers will continue to monitor the Colorado River Delta for more changes until 2017, as researchers feel some results can’t be monitored at this time. They feel the flow may have let seeds from long-lived cottonwoods and willows finally germinate, and somehow affected populations of resident and migratory birds.

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Experimental Flow in Colorado River Delta Makes History