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Flying the Colorado River Pulse

Celebrating the pulse flow of water arriving in the Colorado River Delta. image: Andy Quinn

Recollections from volunteer pilot Bob Allen.

I joined LightHawk in 2011 shortly after retiring.  One of my first flights involved flying the Colorado River Delta for Sonoran Institute, and there I became acquainted with the dedicated people who are trying to restore a small portion of this once magnificent river to its former glory. I’ve flown that route many times over the last four years, but no flight was more inspiring than the day I saw the usually dry riverbed fill with life-giving water and begin to flow from Morelos Dam, near Yuma, AZ, along the US-Mexico border, and on to the Gulf of California.

Over those years I met many members of Sonoran Institute and soon learned to share their love and concern for the health of this one mighty river. One hundred years ago, the Colorado ran deep in Mexico. Fishermen made a living along its banks and boats carried passengers and supplies all the way from the Gulf to Yuma, AZ.

One hundred years later, the river dried up, the fisherman lost their livelihood, wildlife fled, and Mexicans lost a vast natural habitat. 

Dry tidal channels in the Delta. image: Emilie Ryan/LightHawk

 Over the last several years, Sonoran Institute worked hard to raise money to buy water rights and to try to restore a small part of the water to the dusty terrain. On my flights I saw the Institute’s effort to build restoration projects. I saw some progress, but nothing equaled the six weeks of the pulse flow.

Probably nobody is more dedicated to the restoration project than Francisco Zamora Arroyo, Sonoran Institute's director of the Colorado River Legacy Program. So I was not surprised when an excited Francisco asked me to help document the pulse flow from the air beginning in March of 2014, and culminating when the pulse reached the delta on May 14, 2014. 

On the first flight of the day, Francisco could barely contain his excitement. Would the pulse break through decades of accumulated silt and flow into the sea? We needed to be there to capture the moment and capture it we did! We flew on a tight timetable, anxious to be on point for the historic moment.

On prior flights, we witnessed the pulse water slowly oozing its way toward the delta. We saw scientists and volunteers actually walking in front of the pulse, almost seeming to urge it on. Francisco said then that if the pulse reached as far as the highway bridge near the small town of San Luis Rio Colorado, BC, Mexico, he’d consider the project a success. It accomplished much more. 

My heart almost skipped a beat when, at 1,000 feet AGL, I spotted a grand fiesta on the riverbank. Dozens of families were having picnics while children waded, splashed, and swam. I remarked to Francisco then that it would be wonderful if we could see this every day, instead of just over a few weeks after years of effort.

Francisco was busily snapping away with his digital camera as we circled the bridge, and continued downstream to the restoration project. There the waters fed groves of thirsty cottonwoods. Francisco remarked that he was certain the pulse raised the adjacent water table and would bring benefits for many months to come. On that single day, I know he shot over 1000 pictures. I ran my Go-Pro camera remotely from its mount in the back of the plane and handed Francisco a card with hours of HD video after the flight. 

Finally, we reached the isthmus and began searching for the main channel of the river. Francisco knew the geography so well that he easily found it. And just as we got there, as scientists predicted, we saw the pulse break through the last silt plug and slowly flow into the Gulf. Francisco and I were elated!

Colorado river at top connects with brackish tidal waters from the Gulf of California. image: Francisco Zamora/Sonoran Institute/LightHawk

We spent a lot of time circling and taking pictures of every angle. This was a rare opportunity and we didn’t know when we’d see it again. The terrain below looks like the surface of another planet, painted in hues of yellow, pink, green, and sandy beige. Flowing through this kaleidoscope of colors, majestically, surged the Colorado. I thought back to the old timers of 100 years ago and thought how lucky we were to be able to soar over this river, documenting this historic accomplishment. 

In a way, my flights for Sonoran Institute have made me feel like it’s my project, too. I share their pride in what they are doing, and my appreciation for Mexico and its water issues grows with every flight. I have taken to making speeches at local service clubs about this project, and I have encouraged Francisco to do the same.

When I retired in 2011, I was searching for something that would allow me to use my love of flying to give something back in thanks for the wonderful career that God gave me. LightHawk gives me that opportunity. 

Volunteer pilot Bob Allen.

Learn more about Bob in Meet the Pilot - Bob Allen.