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Troubled waters

The increasingly meager flow of the Colorado River into Mexico imperils the millions who depend on it.

May 25, 2008|Frank Clifford | Special to The Times

AT THE MOUTH OF THE COLORADO RIVER — Fighting a fierce north wind and cresting waves, a dozen Cucapa Indian fishermen were in trouble before they were halfway home, their small boats and balky outboard motors overmatched by the roiling estuary of the Colorado River Delta.

"Malo viento," muttered Julio Figueroa, as he nosed his boat slowly through the wind-whipped waves, his feet submerged in 10 inches of standing water. Boats have capsized and men have drowned in these waters, where river and sea collide. Many others have drifted out to sea after waterlogged motors stalled.

The Cucapa say that every year they must venture farther downstream, braving some of the highest spring tides in the world. Rough seas aren't the only hazard. It is illegal to fish here. The waters are part of a federal sanctuary created to protect several imperiled marine species. Although getting caught could cost them their boats, the Cucapa say they have little choice. Upstream, where the current is slower and the fishing legal, there is not enough water anymore and, consequently, not enough fish.

As U.S. scientists warn of a semi-permanent drought along the taxed river by midcentury, Mexico today offers a glimpse of what dry times can be like. Rationing is in effect in some areas. Farmers have abandoned crops they can no longer irrigate. Experts fear that the desert will reclaim some of the region's most fertile land.

The Cucapa are a tiny portion of the 3 million people in northern Mexico who depend on a meager allotment of Colorado River water that was not enough when it was granted by treaty in 1944, and is far from enough now. Traversing 1,440 miles and providing water for seven of the most arid U.S. states, the Colorado River arrives here as an intermittent stream laden with sewage, fertilizer, pesticides and salts leached from farmland.

The Cucapa and their ancestors have been living in the Colorado River Delta for 1,000 years, sustaining themselves on what once were lush wetlands. As the river and its surroundings dried up, most of the Cucapa went elsewhere. Today, the handful who remain -- fewer than 200 -- cling to a water-starved environment that is as imperiled as they are.

Every year at this time, the Cucapa head for the "zono nucleo," the core of the marine reserve where the river meets the Gulf of California. Playing cat and mouse with police patrols, the Indians net corvina, a commercially popular fish that can bring them as much money in a month as they can earn in a year working in fields or doing other manual labor.

This spring day, the Cucapa fishermen would have had unusually good luck if the weather hadn't turned against them. The corvina were plentiful and the patrols nowhere in sight. But the wind didn't let up, and by midafternoon many of the overloaded Cucapa boats were riding precariously low in the choppy water.

As they retreated upriver, one boat lodged on a sandbar, forcing its crew to dump a third of its catch before the men could free their boat. Then another boat -- with Figueroa's stepson aboard -- began to go down, its bow slowly submerging as the two-man crew yelled for help and the pilot frantically tried to guide the boat to shore before the motor gave out.

The men on the stricken boat were eventually rescued, though Figueroa was powerless to help, as he would have had to turn his own heavily laden boat broadside to the waves and almost surely capsized. Nor could he ignore the rapidly receding tide, which could strand him on the riverbed far from home.

One hundred years ago, 30-ton steamboats made their way up the mouth of the Colorado. Now, at low tide, there is no longer enough water flowing downriver to float the Cucapa's 20-foot-long pangas and their cargo. For all his hard work, Figueroa ended the day mired in the nearly dry riverbed, a mile short of his destination, his fish losing much of their freshness and value.

"Malo viento," he kept saying. But it was the river, not an "evil wind," that had let him down.

Dams, drought, climate change, urban growth, industrial agriculture and politics on both sides of the border are to blame, and none of those adverse conditions will reverse any time soon.

Reservoirs have been drawn down to historically low levels, and some scientists predict that under the influence of climate change, the river's annual flow could drop by 50% over the next 40 years.

Despite heavy snowfall in the central Rocky Mountains this year, river managers in the U.S. continue to advise the states that depend on the Colorado River to prepare for water shortages within five years.

Measures to shore up U.S. reserves, meanwhile, are likely to make water even more scarce in Mexico.

For many years, Mexico has benefited from an unofficial surplus over its meager original allotment of river flow. The extra water comes from a combination of underground seepage from an unlined diversion canal in California, and storm runoff that makes its way south of the border.

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