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Happy Accidents and Restoring the Colorado River Delta

 The Colorado River once flowed from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park all the way to Mexico. Call it death by a thousand cuts, but the river once mighty enough to carve the Grand Canyon is now interrupted by more than two-dozen dams and other diversions. The Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. Though the challenges are many, conservation groups, local communities and the governments of the United States and Mexico are working together to restore the Colorado River's path to the sea. Recognizing that flights are critical to rebuilding a healthy Delta, LightHawk has elevated its work there as a flagship project. In the past 24 months, four LightHawk pilots have provided 21 flights in support of this project. La Ciénega de Santa Clara, Mexico. credit: Armando Carbonell/Lincoln Institute/LightHawk.Accidental Wetland
Flying over the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, the verdant green of La Ciénega de Santa Clara stands out against the brown swath of thousands of acres of dried-out riverbed. This 40,000-acre wetland, the largest in the Colorado River Delta, is a vital stopover for migratory birds and home to several species of endangered birds and fish. It's also a happy accident. The ciénega was created when agricultural runoff that was too salty to return to the river or be used to water crops was dumped into a canal. This channel of brackish water gave life to a thriving ecosystem - an important indicator of the Delta's resiliency.

Map: Colorado River Delta ecosystem credit: Sonoran Institute Just Add Water
El Niño flooding in the 1980s and 90s, transformed the Delta almost overnight from flat brown to bright green. This metamorphosis proved that an influx of water enables the parched Delta to quickly regenerate. This convinced the public and governments of US and Mexico that the Delta wasn't the dead zone it appeared to be and that restoration was within their grasp. Today, Sonoran Institute works with local communities and governments in Mexico and the US to restore the Colorado River Delta by reclaiming modest amounts of water for nature.

Francisco Zamora surveys year-old cottonwood trees in the restoration area. credit: Sonoran Institute

Witnessing Progress From the Air
Flights donated to LightHawk partner organization Sonoran Institute help measure and monitor the renewal of the Delta. Wiping dirt from his hands after planting native trees and shrubs in a restoration area, Dr. Francisco Zamora, Program Director for the Sonoran Institute explains, "LightHawk flights allow us to monitor vegetative growth and overall progress of restoration." Francisco and his colleagues also rely on flights to guide their efforts to reconnect the river with the sea and thereby restore the Gulf of California estuary.

Flight passengers review maps of the Delta before touring the area. credit: Marine Ventures Foundation.

Showing Success
Flights help Sonoran Institute enhance understanding of the Delta's interconnected natural systems. These include the river corridor, wetlands, tidal zones, shifting sand bars and arid desert plains. A single flight can make it clear to donors, local officials and community members how all the pieces fit together to create a healthy Delta.

Standing at sea-level, it's also hard to comprehend the vast, flat Delta. But it becomes clear the moment a plane lifts off that the 3,000 square miles the Delta once called home is far a more interconnected and complex landscape than what you see from the ground.

Flights are especially important in the Delta as they can demonstrate successes - like creating a pilot channel to connect the river with the sea - and energize supporters who believe the Delta can come back.

Flying High Over Moving Earth
A 7.2 earthquake that rocked the Colorado River Delta area in April 2010 liquefied solid ground and created new obstacles to freshwater mingling with the tides.

The crucial area where freshwater mingles with tidal saltwater shown in 2011 and in 2012 after a pilot channel had been dug to reunite the two bodies of water. credit: Sonoran Institute/LightHawkThe bodies of water in these images are the river on top and a saltwater lagoon at the bottom. A sand bar created by the earthquake rises up in the middle. Since the river no longer had the "oomph" to flush out sediment blocking its path, the sand bar stood in the way of freshwater reaching the sea. A pilot channel was cut through the sand bar to enhance connectivity, which you can see in the second photo.

While the channel does allow freshwater and tidal flows to mix, opening new nursing and spawning areas for marine species, more river water is needed. The good news is that an extremely modest amount of water will ensure permanent, regular connectivity and increase the size and quality of wildlife habitat in the Delta. Because flight is such an important ingredient for success, LightHawk will continue to fly for this flagship project helping secure water that will enhance fisheries and wildlife, and give the Colorado River Delta what it needs to thrive.

Flagship Project:

LightHawk accords some projects special attention because the issue is large and likely to grow larger; iconic; environmentally, economically and culturally significant; or it encompasses many aviation facets (scientific research, donor and stakeholder flights, aerial photography, etc.).

In this case, LightHawk, Sonoran Institute and Pronatura Baja have forged a special multi-party relationship around this project. The Colorado River Delta restoration also encompasses our four key focus areas: Oceans, Fresh water, Wilderness, and Wildlife.