Cocopah Indian Tribe Secures $5.5 Million for Habitat Restoration in the Colorado River Delta

Audubon partners with Cocopah Tribe to bring more resources to key riparian area.
A Ridgway’s Rail swims in a wetland, reeds and tall grass reflected in the water.
Yuma Ridgway’s Rail in the Colorado River Delta. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob

After receiving funding from two federal grants plus corporate philanthropy, the Cocopah Indian Tribe will embark on restoration of a significant area in the Colorado River Delta on their reservation in southern Arizona. The result will be improved habitat for birds and other wildlife and access for the Tribe to culturally significant native plants that have been hard to find in recent decades due to degraded river conditions. The funds will allow the Tribe to transform more than 400 acres in the Colorado River floodplain by removing invasive, non-native vegetation, planting native trees, shrubs and grasses, and using their water rights to sustain the restored area in the absence of Colorado River flows. The funding will also support development of a Cocopah Tribal youth corps to engage young people in the project and rebuild connections to the Colorado River. The funds supporting this work include grant awards of $5 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s America the Beautiful Challenge program, $200,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tribal Wildlife Program and $315,000 from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

“Securing this funding is a huge success for the Cocopah Tribe, and we have been very fortunate to have the support of the Audubon Society,” said Jen Alspach, Cocopah Environmental Protection Office Director. “This project will be an amazing accomplishment not only in preserving the environment but also in preserving the Cocopah’s traditional way of life. One of the primary goals of the Cocopah Tribal Council is to restore the river for future generations, and it is remarkable to see how the efforts of the last several years have come to fruition.”

Audubon has been working with the Cocopah Tribe on this project since 2019, securing a resolution of support from the Tribal Council in 2021 and partnering with them to secure public and private funds for implementation.

The restoration site is located in southwestern Arizona in the floodplain of the Colorado River Delta below Morelos Dam (the furthest downstream dam on the Colorado), where the channel is dry and restoration of native and riparian and wetland habitat is not possible without a dedicated, managed water supply imported to the site. Presently the site is severely degraded, with no available surface water and dominated by non-native saltcedar. The restoration work will begin in 2024.

The site’s location—across the Colorado River from two restoration sites stewarded under Minute 323 by Pronatura Noroeste, a key partner—presents an opportunity to deepen United States-Mexico cooperation on the Colorado River. Binational cooperation has advanced significantly under recent treaty agreements, and the close proximity of the Cocopah site to the Minute 323 sites in Mexico opens the door for habitat management that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border. It is well-documented that returning water to the river has improved outcomes for birds.

The restored site will expand habitat connectivity for birds and other wildlife dependent on the region’s riparian habitats. Many of these species’ populations, have been declining in recent decades. We know from Audubon’s own science that habitats in the Colorado River Delta have outsized importance for birds like Tree Swallow, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Summer Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and Bell’s Vireo. The expansion of habitat will support resilience in the Lower Colorado River and Delta region, a necessary adaptation to declining river flows due to climate change, river regulation, and overuse. 

Audubon supports a broader vision of improving the sovereign role of Colorado River Basin Tribes in managing the river and benefiting from their own high priority Colorado River water rights. The Cocopah peoples have inhabited the Colorado River Delta since time immemorial and lost immeasurable natural and cultural resources due to the elimination of river flows in this region. The Tribe has more than 10,000 acre-feet of the highest priority water rights to the Colorado River, but uses less than 3,000 acre-feet annually, mostly due to lack of infrastructure to transport the water to their reservation lands. This project allows the Cocopah Tribe to utilize their Colorado River water rights to create an outcome they value—realizing their vision of recreating some of what has been lost in the Delta’s riparian environment on their land.

This inspiring habitat restoration and development of Tribal water is occurring within the context of Colorado River water shortages and negotiations. Audubon has supported the Cocopah Tribe by helping to secure needed funding and with outreach (including the Central Arizona Project, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and others) to ensure that the major water users are supportive of these efforts. It is noteworthy that the Tribe has received letters of support from other Tribes in the Basin, Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs, Representative Raúl Grijalva, federal and state agencies, and local governments and NGO’s, including the Yuma Audubon Society. This project demonstrates that we can work collaboratively to move the needle on habitat issues in the context of a climate-change-impacted Colorado River.

“This project represents an incredible opportunity to leverage funding from corporates and federal agencies to achieve critically important socio-ecological restoration progress in one of the most important ecological regions on the planet, expanding water security, equity and impact in the [Colorado River] delta region,” said Todd Reeve, CEO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.