Going Back in Time

Picture of Sandra Postel and colleagues
Photograph by Cheryl Zook


In the vast Colorado River delta, National Geographic Fellow and freshwater conservationist Sandra Postel had the opportunity to survey its current state while keeping a picture of its former glory in mind. Despite the cracked earth and desiccated landscape, the Delta still lives and Postel has hope that if we give it more water, life will return.


Occasionally, a moment in the field takes you wondrously back in time.


That happened to me last week, as I traveled across the vast delta of the Colorado River in northwestern Mexico. Our team traversed miles and miles of desiccated landscape. The sun beat down on cracked earth. No vegetation—or water—was visible as far as my eyes could see. I took in what the once lush and vibrant delta had become in the era of big dams and massive water diversions.


But then, heading east, we suddenly come upon an aquatic Eden. Cattails reach for the sky along the banks of a labyrinth of lagoons. American coots glide along the surface. On the sandbars, black-neck stilts do their circus walks and long-billed dowitchers poke into the mud for snacks. Off in the distance a clapp-clapp-clapp signals the presence of the elusive and now highly endangered Yuma clapper rail.


Suddenly, I am transported back to 1922, when the great conservationist Aldo Leopold canoed through the delta’s marshes. I savor a tiny taste of the “milk and honey wilderness” and “land of a hundred green lagoons” that he described. The river that for Leopold was “nowhere and everywhere” as it meandered its way toward the sea was long gone. But here in La Ciénega de Santa Clara’s 14,000 acres of marshes—amazingly sustained by spent farm water—was a precious reminder of the delta’s former glory. La Ciénega speaks of resilience. The Colorado Delta, once presumed dead, still lives. And the more water we give it, the more life will return.


—Sandra Postel, Fellow


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