Emergency Aid for an Ailing River

Arizona's Cocopah Indians are working with NWF to restore the Lower Colorado River, the mainspring of local wildlife and the foundation of Cocopah culture

  • Jim Morrison
  • Apr 01, 2006
THE COLORADO RIVER is little more than a foot-deep creek as it meanders toward the Mexico border near this desert spot on the Cocopah Indian Reservation in southwest Arizona. Dams upstream have diverted the river for agricultural use, slowing water flow in this area to a trickle, with devastating effect. Almost all fish species native to this section of the river are endangered or extinct, including the bonytail chub, once a major food for the Cocopah. But still, wildlife endures. Largemouth bass ply the remaining waters. They are not a native species, but they are attractive to anglers, who help support the ecotourism trade that the Cocopah are building.

The Cocopah also are building something else along this ailing river--hope for the future. Since February 2005 they have restored three streamside tracts on the reservation through a collaborative effort with NWF. Last year, a crew spent three weeks removing invasive saltcedars from 25 acres bordering the river. A Eurasian species brought to the United States as an ornamental plant as early as the 1820s, saltcedars have overrun native trees and shrubs along the Colorado. "Once they get a foothold, they choke every other species out," says tribal environmental protection officer Tracy Register. The crew also thinned native cottonwoods, willows and mesquites to give young trees a chance to grow and make the habitat more inviting for wildlife.

A 12-mile stretch of the Colorado River lies within the reservation, providing important habitat for migratory Neotropical songbirds, waterfowl and other wetland birds, including the southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered species reduced by loss of river habitat. "Unless a real effort is made to restore these areas, they are eventually going to go away," Register says.

The Cocopah have restored about 200 acres along the river so far, with a fourth project of about 50 acres to start soon. The largest restoration completed so far is 93 acres adjacent to the tribe's golf course and RV park. There, saltcedars had so thoroughly choked out native plants that only islands of cottonwood, willow and mesquite survived among the invasive undergrowth. With the removal of saltcedars, those native plants are beginning to thrive. Under an agreement with a local farmer, several 5-acre plots cleared of saltcedars will be planted with hay, which will provide important ground cover. The farmer will irrigate the hay with water from a 3-acre pond that the Cocopah excavated and also will water the nearby groves of native trees. At other restored sites, removal of saltcedars alone has allowed native plants to revive.

The Cocopah reservation--established in 1917 and enlarged in 1985--lies 13 miles south of Yuma, Arizona, divided into three parcels. A generation ago, some 5,000 Cocopah lived there, but as the river drained away, tribal members left in search of work. Barely 800 remain. "The Cocopah people are the river," says tribal elder Colin Soto. "Our whole life was based on the river. By that I mean the food, the shelter, our beliefs, from the time Cortez came here."

Until the river dried up, the Cocopah practiced a form of agriculture dependent upon river flood waters, using digging sticks to plant seeds as the water receded each spring. They also collected wild wheat and rice from the river delta. During the years when floods were inadequate for crops, they gathered other wild foods, particularly pods from honey and screwbean mesquite. The pods yielded a high-protein flour as well as paint for pottery and basketry and a medicine from the black sap. After the flood waters subsided, they harvested pigweed for cooking as greens. For meat, the tribe relied on fish, caught with dip nets, and hunted deer, rabbits, ducks and geese along the river bank. "We think of the river as a gift to us," Soto says. "When you take the river, the trees and the woods away, I have no identity. I have nowhere to go. If the river stops flowing, we will no longer exist."

To protect both their culture and the ecosystem on which it depends, the tribe passed a resolution in 2002 supporting preservation of the river and its surroundings down to the delta in Mexico and began working with stakeholders, notably NWF, to make that happen. Three years later they petitioned the federal Bureau of Land Management to designate the border reaches of the Colorado an area of critical environmental concern, which would allow them to create a conservation management plan, according to Garrit Voggesser, head of NWF's Tribal Lands Program. "The long-term goal is to create an international conservation area," he says, adding that the tribe and NWF are working on that objective with Mexican conservation groups and officials. "Protection also will help complete a link among national wildlife refuges and wilderness areas along the Lower Colorado River, treating the river as a complete ecosystem."

More than 20 organizations were consulted on both sides of the border as the project moved forward. "It's a very challenging project to put together because it involves a very contentious issue: water," says Myra Wilensky, an NWF outreach coordinator who was involved early in the project. "As has been said many times before, whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting." Several federal agencies on both sides of the border are required under agreements and regulations to carry out water-distribution plans that could conflict with protecting the area for cultural and biological purposes. "Getting them to agree that their future projects would not irreparably harm the area is an ongoing process," she says.

The restoration efforts on the reservation have been funded with about $250,000 in grants from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management. The Department of Homeland Security has pledged $50,000 to restore and remove saltcedars from an additional 100 acres close to the Mexican border, an action that also increases security in the area. Because the reservation is so near the Mexican border, illegal aliens cross the area frequently. Removing the cover leaves them fewer places to hide.

Register and Soto foresee a time when walking trails through the area will allow visitors who flock to Yuma each winter to learn about tribal culture, perhaps through a mix of pamphlets and exhibits. For Soto, each piece of restored river is another piece of the tribe's legacy preserved. "The thing that ties me back to history is the river. If we restore it, we will be able to not only have some rejuvenation of our culture but be able to take people from town and the schools and say, 'This is who I am. This is Cocopah.'"

Virginia writer Jim Morrison visited the Cocopah reservation for this story.

Backing Tribal Conservation 
The Cocopah project is one of a number of NWF conservation efforts on tribal lands. Undertakings include working with educators from Ute tribes in Colorado to adapt NWF's Schoolyard Habitats® program to traditional tribal agricultural practices, helping to restore bison to appropriate tribal lands and coordinating with the Nevada Wildlife Federation to help repair damage done by agricultural development to Walker Lake, which serves as habitat for Lahontan cutthroat, a key food of the Walker River Paiute tribe. Indian tribes manage roughly 95 million acres, nearly 10 million more than the National Park Service, including more than 13,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 25.5 million acres of forest.

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