This piece is part of Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater, a special National Geographic Freshwater News series on how grabbing land—and water—from poor people, desperate governments, and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures.
The sadness of their story is written in the deeply lined, yet fiercely proud faces of the tribal elders.
For at least a thousand years, a native Indian clan called the Cucapá – the “people of the river” – fished and farmed in the delta of the Colorado River of northwestern Mexico. Their lives were keyed to the river’s natural rhythms. Each spring, after melting snows from the Rocky Mountains sent floodwaters down through the delta, the Cucapá planted beans, melons, and squash in soils newly fertilized by the river’s nutrient-rich sediment. They harvested a grain called nipa, a salt-loving plant that tastes much like wild rice. And they fished for corvina, a type of sea bass, and often ate fish three times a day.
Historical accounts suggest that four hundred years ago as many as 5,000 Cucapá were living in the delta. Today, perhaps 300 remain. Theirs is a culture at risk of extinction – and the primary reason is the colossal 20th-century grab of the waters of the Colorado River.
It began in 1922, when representatives from the seven U.S. states that lie within the Colorado’s watershed met outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to divvy up the river’s water. Not invited to the gathering, however, were any representatives for Mexico, native Indians, or the river itself. While a 1944 bi-national treaty corrected one of these oversights and allotted a tenth of the river’s flow to Mexico, neither the tribes nor the river got any.
U.S. officials wasted no time in building dams and canals to get water and power to growing cities and farming regions. The completion of Hoover Dam in 1935 created the largest reservoir in the United States. Davis, Parker, Imperial, and a half dozen other dams followed. Canals siphoned flows off to fill swimming pools in Los Angeles, water golf courses in Palm Springs, and irrigate crops throughout the southwestern desert.
Meanwhile, in 1950 Mexico completed the Morelos Dam, just south of the border. Although the dam had no storage, it diverted most of the Colorado water crossing into Mexico to the farms and people of the Mexicali valley.
Through all of this, scarcely a thought – and certainly no water – was given to the Colorado River Delta or the Cucapá.
Once a 2 million-acre expanse of wetlands and one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth, the delta today is a shadow of its former self. The place the conservationist Aldo Leopold called a “milk and honey wilderness” is now a desiccated land of salt flats and dry river channels. In all but the wettest years the Colorado disappears into the desert sands a short distance south of the border.
With flows cut off from the Gulf of California, the gulf’s fisheries are in decline. Both the Gulf corvina and the great totoaba, which live in the upper gulf and rely on spawning and nursery habitat in the delta, are vulnerable to extinction.
When I visited the Cucapá community of El Mayor some years ago, I found a gracious, generous people barely scraping by in their desolate, dusty town. Drinking water came in by truck. Bathing was a teacup affair. Fish were hard to come by. And with the annual flood gone, so for the most part was their nipa, their staple grain.
Not surprisingly, the younger tribal members were heading north to find jobs. Only about fifty Cucapá families remained in El Mayor. Yet still, there was pride of culture: the young boys on the soccer field wore shirts emblazoned with their team name, El Pescadores – the fishermen.
In one of the cruelest injustices of the Colorado water grab, the Cucapá were forced by massive floods to move to El Mayor. Previously they had lived on their traditional lands along the Rio Hardy, which joins the Colorado’s main channel in the delta. During the El Niño years of the 1980s, floodwaters surged through the Colorado Basin. To manage the flooding, U.S. dam operators opened penstocks to release water from their reservoirs. Floodwaters rushed down to the delta, overtopped the riverbanks and destroyed the Cucapá’s riverside homes.
As Charles Bergman recounts in his eloquent book, Red Delta, the Mexican government then forced the Cucapá to move to the higher ground of El Mayor, with no fertile land, no rights to water and little chance of sustainable livelihoods.
“[The Cucapá] live within a three-hour drive of San Diego,” Bergman writes, “but now have been completely forgotten by the civilization on both sides of the border that destroyed their old way of life.”
Glimmer of Hope
But now, for the first time in decades, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
U.S. and Mexican officials have recently agreed to deliver a small volume of flow – about one percent of the Colorado’s total annual flow – to the delta over five years to begin to restore the delta’s wetlands and critical habitats. A long-standing partnership of U.S. and Mexican scientists has carefully laid out the restoration priorities.
Maybe the words spoken to me by a Cucapá elder during my visit to El Mayor were prescient: “I hope one day to see the river rise again.”
But whether the longed-for delta restoration will once again make the Cucapá “people of the river” remains to be seen.
Special thanks to Silk and Coca-Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course. Additional funding generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”