Tribal-led Restoration in the Colorado River Delta

Cocopah Tribe’s vision for the river and their land.
Cactus Wren. Photo: Tara Lemezis/Audubon Photography Awards

Our caravan of cars pulled up to a seemingly random stopping point and we all piled out—members of the Cocopah Tribe, Audubon staff, and people with years of restoration experience in this corner of the world. We looked out over the dry, dusty expanse in front of us, nothing but tan earth specked with dying salt cedar and mesquite.  We checked out the floodplain of the sizable Colorado River, though you couldn’t quite tell since there was no actual river in sight.  We also happened to be looking at an area on the Cocopah Reservation that the Cocopah Tribe wants to restore back into the kind of ecosystem that thrived here when the river still ran. Despite the bleakness of the landscape in front of us you could feel the excitement in the group—we were talking about the Cocopah Tribe’s vision for the river and for this land.   

The day before, on the opposite side of the river, we strolled through a dense forest of cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite. Mostly, the Mexico side is similar to the U.S. side—dry, mostly bare sandy desert pocked with salt cedar, bordered by swaths of green farmland (irrigated by Colorado River water). We were visiting one of the sites that the federal governments of the United States and Mexico—working with a binational coalition of NGOs including Audubon—have collaboratively restored to native riparian habitat. Our hosts, from Pronatura Noroeste, the Mexican conservation organization stewarding this particular site, explained its evolution from the surrounding dry sandy desert, to the green oasis it is today. The juxtaposition is stunning, and I could tell that this visit seeded some hope for what could be on the Cocopah’s land.

Below Morelos Dam, in southwestern Arizona, the Colorado River forms the border between the United States and Mexico. This is the Limitrophe, the upstream extent of the modern delta, and from here downriver to the Upper Gulf of California, the Colorado has not reliably maintained a flow for the past half century. Cocopah reservation lands sit on this border, and during our visit in February, where the river disappeared decades ago, the Colorado River was nothing more than a dried-up riverbed.

The Cocopah Tribe’s ancestral lands span the lower Colorado River and its delta all the way to where the river meets the Gulf of California. The Colorado River Delta was once a lush and vibrant ecosystem, and the Cocopah sustained themselves by fishing the expansive waters of the Colorado River and farming the fertile floodplain. Federal policy to develop the Colorado River’s water for agricultural production and to promote settlement of the region has contributed to the profound transformation of this landscape. The land set aside for the Tribe by the U.S. government occupies only a tiny portion of their original lands, and this once lush, verdant river corridor is now a desiccated desert reminiscent of scenes from an old western movie with tumbleweeds flying by on the screen.

The Cocopah are people of the river, and while the extinction of the Colorado River in its delta transformed their home from forest to desert, they believe it’s not too late to do something about it.  Their vision is to plant cottonwood and willow trees, native shrubs and grasses, and create wetland areas, using some of their Colorado River water rights to restore a small area of the river’s floodplain on their reservation. Audubon is supporting the Tribe in this vision. Through our partnership in the binational effort to restore patches of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, we’ve seen the power of even a small amount of restoration in this landscape. It provides birds such as the Cactus Wren and Ash-throated Flycatcher with the habitat they need to survive. It also gives local communities the opportunity to experience a river ecosystem that disappeared decades ago. The Cocopah Tribe’s restoration efforts will multiply these benefits, and support their traditions and culture for current and future generations.

Check out this podcast featuring Cocopah Tribal Council members and Audubon staff to hear more about this project.