Who owns a river?

This NPR story from yesterday got me thinking about rivers. When a river runs through several counties, states, or countries, whose river is it? Everyone’s? Or just the people lucky enough to be where the river begins?

For six million years the Colorado River supplied millions of gallons of water to Mexico each year. Lush rain forests grew in the Colorado River delta, in Mexico. Today, what was once lush is now a dry wasteland, and despite the best of intentions and the good that came from it, the brief, controversial opening of the Morelos Dam did not convert a sandy gorge back into a rainforest.

In the 1920’s the United States began damming the Colorado to control the course and usage of the water. The dams and diversions helped the U.S. to develop much of the western United States. Cities grew where cities couldn’t have been, and crops grew in areas that were once desert. But for every positive change there were equal and opposite negative reactions. In 1944, huge changes to the Colorado River were already underway. At this time Mexico and the U.S. signed a treaty guaranteeing Mexico 1,500,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually. However, due to damming and diverting it for our own uses (mainly to grow crops for farm animals), Mexico now gets very little water from the Colorado River and must negotiate to buy it from us. I think the whole point here is going to be that Mexico should have made more of fuss back then. Because catastrophic changes have happened to their landscape, and the benefits of the Colorado River are no longer theirs.

The NPR article and tons of other articles like this Smithsonian article evoke many comments about how we should all be vegetarians, water our yards less, and settle for scrubbier looking golf courses (I can’t argue with any of those ideas), but there is an absence of commentary about those of us in the United States hogging it all for ourselves. The mentality seems to be How can we give it back to them? It’s ours and we need it.

I guess it’s lucky for us it starts in the Rockies and not in Canada, where, according to our rules, they could just dam it up and divert it in all directions besides south.

I found this comment by Jonathan Waterman in a New York Times article kind of funny: “If the final reaches of this six-million-year-old delta were in the United States, they would have been declared a national park, with a protected free-flowing river. But because the river terminates in a foreign country, beyond the reach of the Endangered Species Act and most tourists’ cameras, it is suffering a slow death.”

What he’s saying may be true; If this had been U.S. land, perhaps we would have protected it from the harm we were causing upstream. Perhaps we would have been more careful upstream to begin with. I don’t think he meant for it to, but it seems that Waterman’s comment implies that since it’s Mexico’s land, it’s their responsibility to preserve this rainforest. Only, it’s not a rainforest anymore. It’s a dried out wasteland. The fact that the delta is dry and dying must be someone’s fault, but not ours since it’s not our land. It’s like someone having a fruit tree that hangs over his neighbor’s yard, and chopping down the fruit tree, and then saying, “If that fruit had been hanging over my yard, I would have taken care of that fruit. I would have made some nice pie out of it.”

Organizations like the Sonoran Institute and Save The Colorado are working to rehabilitate the Delta Region. They’re hopeful about the changes that can be made. Honestly, to me it looks pretty daunting, but I have to admire these visionary optimists who are working to improve such dire situations. For more information about preserving the Colorado River Delta, visit the Sonoran Institute’s website.
Sonoran Institute logo
For more information about the Hoover Dam and how the Colorado River gets apportioned, this government website is really informative.

And finally, for my own personal bit of Hoover Dam trivia for you, the first person and last person to die constructing the dam were a father and son with the last name of Tierney, who died exactly thirteen years apart. I guess I’d better stay away from the Hoover Dam!

2 replies to “Who owns a river?

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