Acquiring Water Rights to the Colorado River Delta

River deltas are among the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth, but over the past century the Colorado River Delta has become increasingly threatened. Due to upstream diversions and dam development, the Colorado River Delta ecosystem has been deprived of nearly 99 percent of its historical flow. The Colorado River supports 30 million people and 1 million acres of irrigated farmland, and as a result it dries up just south of the California-Mexico border. Beyond this point, the river corridor receives virtually no new flows except for occasional releases from Morelos Dam, and only reappears at its confluence with the Rio Hardy where a small flow of runoff enters the channel and drains into the Gulf of California.

Founded in 1951, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has conserved over fifteen million acres in the United States, and has worked with international partners to conserve over one hundred million acres worldwide. The Nature Conservancy works in all fifty states and more than thirty countries to protect endangered habitats and address threats to conservation. The Foundation’s Western Conservation subprogram aims to protect and restore biologically important and iconic regions of western North America. The Colorado River Delta is a central ecosystem of significant conservation value in the region. Working with The Nature Conservancy and other conservation partners to preserve and revitalize this precious landscape is a priority of the Foundation.

In 2012, the United States and Mexico negotiated a comprehensive bi-national agreement to address management of the Colorado River. Thanks to the efforts of a coalition of nonprofit conservation partners including The Nature Conservancy, ProNatura Noroeste, the Sonoran Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund, the resulting negotiated agreement includes new provisions to provide water to the Delta ecosystem. Under the agreement, a large quantity of water will be delivered to the river corridor on a one-time basis, provided in equal shares by the U.S., Mexico and the conservation partners, to mimic natural springtime flows in a wet year. In addition, the partners have the opportunity to purchase permanent water rights in Mexico to provide at least 75 million cubic meters of water (20 billion gallons) to the Delta ecosystem over four years. However, the conservation partners required bridge funding in order to demonstrate to the U.S. and Mexico their commitment to upholding their side of the agreement during the treaty negotiations, and to finance the acquisition of permanent water rights in advance of a fundraising campaign to support this historic initiative.

Through a Program-Related Investment (PRI) loan to The Nature Conservancy, the Packard Foundation is enabling the conservation partners to acquire the permanent water rights provided for in the historic bi-national agreement between the United States and Mexico. The water rights were acquired through the Colorado River Delta Water Trust, an existing legal mechanism jointly controlled by the partners. The PRI enabled The Nature Conservancy to purchase the water rights, ensuring that the conservation effort would be a part of the final negotiated agreement. The Foundation’s PRI loan funding was in turn conditional upon the successful negotiation and execution of the bi-national agreement between the United States and Mexico.

On November 20, 2012, seven months after the finalization of the PRI loan, the United States and Mexico officially signed the bi-national agreement including plans to bring water back to the Colorado River Delta ecosystem. With the US-Mexico bi-national agreement now in place, the conservation partners, along with additional partners including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Redford Center, National Geographic and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, are working through the Colorado River Delta Water Trust to finalize the acquisition of water rights, and launching a capital campaign to provide support for this innovative water rights acquisition.

The increased water flows from this program are expected to be large enough to maintain, expand and improve the habitat and wetlands along the central river corridor (the riparian corridor) of the Delta. The water rights acquired through this PRI represent the first step in revitalizing one of the world’s greatest ecosystems, and promise to lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive and long-term bi-national water rights agreement in 2019