For a few weeks this spring, the Colorado River flowed all the way to the sea for the first time in a half a century. And during that window of opportunity, writer Rowan Jacobsen took the paddleboarding trip of a lifetime.
The river starts in the Rocky Mountains, and for more than 1,400 miles, it wends its way south. Along the way it’s dammed and diverted dozens of times, to cities and fields all over the American West. Tens of millions of people depend on the river as a water source.
By the time the Colorado River reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, only 10 percent of it is left. At that point, it hits the Morelos Dam, and the river dies: It’s diverted a final time into Mexican farmland.
This March, the U.S. and Mexico made the unprecedented decision to open the dam and release billions of gallons of water into the dry riverbeds downstream. This “pulse flow” supported efforts to restore ecosystems in the former Colorado River Delta, and briefly brought the river back to life.
Jacobsen was part of a team that traveled down the temporary river in canoes and on stand-up paddleboards. He wrote about the experience for Outside magazine, and spoke to NPR’s Kelly McEvers about the adventure.
He tells her about paddling by freaked-out Border Patrol agents and passing through former river towns celebrating the return of the water. He also addresses the controversy over releasing so much water during a drought.
“Fifty times as much water as was released for this project is used for irrigation to make alfalfa, basically, to feed cattle,” Jacobsen says. “So if we can just take 1/50 of the water that we use to make hamburgers and milk from the Colorado River, we can have this kind of event every year.”
You can hear their full conversation at the audio link on this page.