TED ROBBINS: Welcome to the place Karl Flessa calls "acres of clams."
KARL FLESSA: It comes from an old American folk song: "No longer the slave of ambition, I laugh at the world and its shams. I think of my happy condition surrounded by acres of clams." It fits the title pretty well.
TED ROBBINS: Perhaps, but the clam digger in the song is surrounded by living organisms. These Colorado River clams are dead. Their numbers have been declining for the last 70 years, since the first dams went up on the Colorado River and slowed the flow of water into the Gulf of California. Paleobiologist Karl Flessa is trying to prove the Colorado River clam is an endangered species. He's collecting the shells, because they can tell him how much water flowed here before the dams were built.
KARL FLESSA: Now, each of these bands represents the spring flood of the Colorado River. The chemistry of the shells is that when this particular dark band was laid down, there was a lot of fresh water when this clam was alive, so it's not just that the river supplied fresh water to the northern Gulf of California; it also supplied a lot of nutrients that the clams depended upon, and probably wasn't just the clams; there were probably more abundant worms, probably more abundant crabs, there were probably more abundant animals that lived on the worms, the crabs and the clams, so everything was probably much more abundant.
TED ROBBINS: Few people thought of the environmental consequences when Hoover Dam was finished in 1936. An engineering marvel of the time, it diverted Colorado River water for drinking, crop irrigation and hydroelectric power to a growing western population. By 1980, when Lake Powell filled behind the last dam, Glen Canyon, engineers had constructed 58 dams on the Colorado River and its tributaries. Today, about 30 million people in seven western states and two Mexican states depend on Colorado River water. Once, that water nourished almost 4,000 square miles of delta wetlands. Now a relative trickle reaches the delta, and even less water flows into the Gulf of California.
PEGGY TURK BOYER: The Colorado used to contribute over 50 percent of the fresh water in the upper gulf. Now it doesn't come here regularly so there's no fresh water -- come to Colorado.
TED ROBBINS: Reporter: Peggy Turk Boyer heads CEDO-- the Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans-- in Puerto Penasco, Mexico. She says the lack of fresh water in the Colorado River Delta is a major problem.
PEGGY TURK BOYER: The northern Gulf of California is the land of or the sea of reproduction. I mean, things come up here, migrate up here to the Colorado River and use this fresh water, nutrient rich area for reproduction, and so it's been a land of abundance, so people here have experienced this overwhelming abundance and they've also seen it go down.
TED ROBBINS: The lack of fresh water contributed to the decline of the Gulf shrimp industry. Over the last decade the number of boats in the fleet here has been cut in half. Ramon Soberanes has seen this decline in more than 40 years of fishing.
TED ROBBINS: "Forty-six years ago, it was very rich. It was very good," he says. "Through time we've noticed a decrease in the species, all the species."
TED ROBBINS: The Colorado River Delta is also a major stopover on the Pacific flyway. An estimated 75 percent of all North American birds use it for migration. The decline in water has meant a decline in birds feeding and resting in the habitat. The Colorado River Delta really has two overreaching problems. The first is by now obvious to you: By the time seven U.S. and two Mexican states get done using the river, there's not much water left. The second is legal: Under water law, the environment is not considered a user, so it has no legal standing.
ROBERT GLENNON: You've got cities, you've got the farms, you've got needs of hydroelectric power, all with greater priority and greater political leverage than the environmental community or nature itself.
TED ROBBINS: Robert Glennon is a University of Arizona professor specializing in water law, as well as a historian of the Colorado River.
ROBERT GLENNON: Both countries have divided the water up, and in fact, there's not enough water in the river on an annual basis to satisfy all the legal rights to water in the river. It's stunning but true. And that is because the river was allocated in the 1920s when people thought the flow of the river, was about 22 million acre feet a year. It turns out that studies at the University of Arizona have shown that the average flow over the last 500 years is really only about 14 million acre feet. But there are legal rights to 17.5 million acre feet. So there's a train wreck ahead, because there are more claims, legal claims to water than there is water in the river.
TED ROBBINS: There may not be enough water now to satisfy legal allocations, but in the early 1980s and mid-1990s, there was too much water behind the dams. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the system, had to react to unusually wet El Nino winters. It released water to keep the reservoirs from overflowing. That caused an unintended consequence: The water revived a small portion of the Delta habitat, about 150,000 acres below the Mexican border, but north of acres of clams. The Mexican government named the area a national park, part of the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve. With his Mexican colleagues, environmental scientist Ed Glenn has been studying the area for about a decade. He says the periodic releases of excess water in the reservoirs acted much like the spring floods that came down the Colorado annually before the dams were built.
ED GLENN: It's exactly what's happening, it's unintentionally, the Bureau of Reclamation has mimicked the natural pulse flood regime that used to operate on the whole river and cause new generations of native trees to star every four or five years.
TED ROBBINS: Ed Glenn wants to see the Delta restored to its natural state. He says that would require water flows, not just occasional upstream flood control releases. He and his colleagues are experimenting with Delta trees to see just how much water it would take them to thrive, along with other plants and animals. His answer: Not much.
ED GLENN: Well, it's less than one percent of the total flow of the river. And to visualize it, it's, if you put the annual amount that you would need in a ditch, it's a ditch that you could almost jump over if you took a running start.
PROTESTORS ( Chanting ): Let it flow! Let it flow!
TED ROBBINS: Ed Glenn's research has spawned an environmental crusade. Members of more than 40 environmental organizations supported a series of rallies like this one in Phoenix. They want one percent of the Colorado River's flow dedicated to the environment.
PROTESTORS: One percent for the Delta; one percent now -
TED ROBBINS: The goal: Raise public awareness to pressure the cities and farms that hold the rights to Colorado River water to give some of it up. Jack Lavelle of the Arizona Department of Water Resources says one percent sounds like a little, but just try prying it away from those who own it.
JACK LAVELLE: You know, Mark Twain said whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. And people fight over water in the West. And any time you want to take water away from anyone, it's going to be a battle. You know, it sounds like a reasonable proposition, just one percent. But as long as it's not my one percent, I guess anyone will agree.
TED ROBBINS: So Robert Glennon, the law professor, has a solution: Bypass U.S. water rights holders altogether, he says. Make it an international issue.
ROBERT GLENNON: Really what you have to do is get the State Department involved and that's through the International Boundary and Water Commission. Now it becomes not an issue of the Interior Department dealing with agricultural interests versus urban interests, now it's the country of Mexico negotiating with the country of the United States through the respective State Departments.
TED ROBBINS: For relatively little cost, says Glennon, the Bush administration would help the Mexican fishing industry, which exports much of its catch to the U.S. That would improve relations with the Mexican government, a top Bush foreign relations policy. Glennon says the Bush Administration might also win sorely needed points with the environmental movement. Legrand Neilsen is with the Bureau of Reclamation. Once concerned only with providing water to cities and farms, he now thinks the bureau can help negotiate an international agreement to provide water for the environment.
LeGRAND NEILSEN: Within that framework you got to try to find someone somewhere that's willing to give up some water, and that's probably going to cost some money. Institutional, we somehow got to have an agreement with Mexico. If we have enough time, if we can keep people involved in the negotiations and the discussions, we will find a way. Now, what it will look like at the end, you know, probably neither you nor I know exactly what it will turn out to be, but I'm confident that we'll be able to find a way to do something to help preserve to some extent what is in the Delta.
TED ROBBINS: An agreement could come sooner if Karl Flessa convinces the U.S. Government to list the Colorado River clam as an endangered species. That would lend urgency and legal authority to efforts to save the Colorado River Delta and put more fresh water back in the Gulf of California.