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The bridge at San Luis Rio Colorado played host to a spontaneous party in spring 2014 when the Colorado River again flowed here during the pulse flow. (Luke Runyon, KUNC)

SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, MEXICO — Under the red girders of a nondescript toll bridge, waves gently lapped coarse sands in a gritty corner of this northwestern Mexican border city.  

“There is usually no water and vegetation, and the ground looks like this,” local conservationist Alejandra Calvo-Fonesca said, gesturing toward the dusty shoreline of the Colorado River.

For a few months this winter, residents welcomed an unexpected surge of water in the river – a phenomenon they had not experienced since the spring 2014 “pulse flow,” when the United States released 107,000 acre-feet of water into the Colorado River Delta over a two-month period. That seminal event brought revelers in droves, eager to celebrate the revival of a historic waterway that is not only the city’s namesake, but a source of pride for its people.

Clinging to this nostalgic moment, a binational team of Colorado River defenders is trying to make sure the waterway’s presence is more than a fleeting memory. An unexpected pairing of environmental activists and planners from San Luis and Denver have come together to form the River Sisters Partnership, a collaborative that has set its sights on not only restoring river flow from the border to the sea, but also rehabilitating neglected neighborhoods in two distant cities – including this once-vibrant spot beneath the Colorado River Toll Bridge.

Beginning its journey in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River winds its way some 1,450 miles southwest to the Sea of Cortez, passing across the border and under the toll bridge with little water to speak of for its last 100 miles. As they push forward plans to rehabilitate this critical juncture, River Sisters activists are also hoping to transform fantasy into reality – and connect the historic waterway to its original endpoint. 

“What we’re designing in this place, is a place that will represent us as sisters of the river,” said Nancy Saldaña, a local architect and project pioneer.

The Colorado River’s inability to reach the Sea of Cortez has become one of its defining characteristics, emblematic of the southwest’s reliance on the overallocated river system. (Luke Runyon, KUNC)

But on this gusty January morning, the space below the bridge was empty, aside from a lone dog ambling behind graffiti-splashed cement pillars. Cautionary signs deterred any would-be beachgoers, who would find the agricultural runoff flowing through the channel less than appealing for wading and swimming.

In the process of repairing the U.S. Bypass Drain, which normally conveys irrigation drainage from Arizona to Mexico’s Ciénega de Santa Clara wetland, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had diverted that water into another cross-border channel, the Main Outlet Drain Extension, temporarily reviving river flow. Lifeless leaves of semi-succulent saltbush, unaccustomed to such a deluge, wilted in the middle of the streambed, as new blades of grass popped up around them.

The Colorado River Toll Bridge, which connects Highway 2 travelers from Sonora to Baja California, traverses more than just state lines. Situated a few hundred feet from Arizona, the bridge offers a clear view of the huge new steel slabs that mark the border between Mexico and the United States. This typically arid pocket on the outskirts of the city – an ancient river ecosystem that vanished in the 1960s – now draws mostly teenage ATV racers, eager to kick up dust on the plentiful sand dunes.

“They come to the river, but with no water,” said Calvo-Fonesca, who is a wildlife survey coordinator for the Pronatura Noroeste environmental group. “They come here just to play, to have fun with the cars.”

Calvo-Fonesca was therefore enthusiastic when Pronatura teamed up with Saldaña, the architect who is promoting the construction of a nearly 2-mile “greenway” along the channel’s natural course that would include permanent river flow. To accomplish this plan, Saldaña forged an unlikely alliance some 950 miles due northeast, in Denver, where a stretch of land along the South Platte River in the Sun Valley neighborhood will be made into a park.

The greenways in both cities are key components of the River Sisters Partnership – a project made official in May 2018, when Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and then-San Luis Rio Colorado Mayor José Enrique Reina Lizárraga signed a memorandum of understanding. Many years in the making, this cross-border river restoration effort is the brainchild of Saldaña and water policy analyst Jorge Figueroa, co-founder and director of El Laboratorio, a Latino-led environmental innovation laboratory based in Denver.

Architect Nancy Saldaña and Jorge Figueroa at a River Sisters Partnership event in the Centro Cultural Dr. Hector Chavez Fontez, San Luis Río Colorado, in October 2018. (Provided by Municipality of San Luis Río Colorado)

At the time of the historic pulse flow, Saldaña was San Luis’ director of urban development and led a campaign called “Vamonos al rio” (“Let’s go to the river”), which recruited volunteers to clean up the sandy channel prior to the river’s arrival. The volunteers, Saldaña explained through a translator, were on a mission to “tidy up” for a “very important visitor” they hadn’t seen in a long time.

“They had a large church Mass, with a big table so that everyone could share food. It felt like a family gathering,” she said, noting that participants – old and young – brought their own cleaning supplies to the 7 a.m. Sunday gathering. “It was like a big celebration, like a graduation, and something we just weren’t expecting.”

Although some of the volunteers wanted to head over to the Morelos Dam, a few miles north, near Yuma, Arizona, where the water was going to be released later that morning, Saldaña insisted that they wait under the toll bridge, where they had been preparing for its arrival.

“We felt like this was our space, San Luis,” she said. “It was our place. We had to be there waiting.”

They ended up waiting nearly three days for the Colorado River to reach the bridge, with many residents choosing to camp on the riverbank as they eagerly anticipated the flow.   

“We saw it at the exact moment the water came under the bridge – about 100 meters before,” Saldaña said. “When the water started flowing under the bridge, it was like a party; a party for everyone.”

It was along the sidelines of these celebrations that Saldaña met Figueroa, who was visiting San Luis in his previous job as a water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates. Figueroa, who also is a Spanish-language poet, recalled a festive environment with “a pop-up Ferris wheel and four generations of folks who haven’t had the river for the past 60 years.”

“That was where I saw the charisma of the Colorado River,” he said.

Seeing how the environment responds to water

Saldaña quickly arranged for Figueroa, a Yale Forestry School graduate, to present his water conservation ideas to U.S. government officials who were also in town for the pulse flow. During his short visit to the region, Figueroa said he was struck by a restoration effort that had already occurred about an hour south of San Luis, at Laguna Grande – a place he described as “the bullseye of the pulse flow” with natural fertility rivaling that of “a Chia Pet.”

“It was very transformative to me as a forester to see the intensity of that response from nature,” Figueroa said. “When I saw that at Laguna Grande, I realized that the Colorado River doesn’t stop at Morelos Dam. If I’m going to be an authentic Colorado River advocate, I need to be an advocate from the source to the sea. The heart of the river is in the Delta. The womb of the river is in the headwaters in Colorado.”

Fresh blades of grass crop up around withered saltbush plants – semi-succulents that are unable to withstand the new deluge of water under the bridge. (Sharon Udasin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After observing the significant social impact of the river’s arrival upon the residents, Saldaña said she and Figueroa knew that this vacant space under the bridge needed to be put to better use. Recalling places like the Parque Lineal La Presidenta in Medellin, Colombia, as a source of inspiration, Saldaña described a future greenway as an ideal use of public space alongside the Colorado riverbed.

“What we could see is that this was a place people identified with, a public space that united the community that wasn’t being used,” Saldaña said.

Concrete plans for River Sisters came to fruition about six months later, when Figueroa and Saldaña were having breakfast at the Dushanbe Teahouse, an iconic gift from Boulder’s sister city in Tajikistan. 

Acknowledging that friendship parks are “the bread and butter” of Sister Cities International, Figueroa said he felt that River Sisters could encourage the transfer of in-stream environmental water flows into the Colorado River Delta. He traveled with Saldaña to the Colorado River Headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, where they understood that their regions “were connected across boundaries.”

“The park is going to help bring the river back,” Figueroa said. “The vision is that it will act as the metaphorical opposite of the Morelos Dam.”

After facing some delays in their quest to establish River Sisters, as well as an initial lack of enthusiasm from environmental foundations on both sides of the border, Saldaña and Figueroa received the official support of Mayor Reina at the end of 2016. 

Working with a planning committee of local conservationists, Figueroa arranged for Reina and his colleagues to visit Colorado, where they toured several cities that could serve as potential Sisters. Eventually, they settled on Denver, which derives 50% of municipal water resources from the Colorado River and also boasts a thriving Latino culture. Four months after that visit, Reina and Hancock signed the agreement, shortly after Figueroa founded El Laboratorio. 

The agreement describes River Sisters as a binational initiative that aims to “advance the restoration of the Colorado River and celebrates the hydrological, economic, and social interdependencies of urban Colorado River water users from the River’s source to the sea.” El Laboratorio and Saldaña officially established River Sisters, with initial support from the Denver-based group Americas for Conservation + the Arts (AFC+A), and the ongoing involvement of Pronatura Noroeste in Mexico. Although River Sisters has a number of specific goals, one chief aim of the project is to construct twin Colorado River greenways in both San Luis and Denver.

A boardwalk extends into Mexico’s Ciénega de Santa Clara, an “accidental wetland” created in the 1970s by irrigation drainage from Arizona. (Sharon Udasin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In addition to paving the way for the twin parks, the agreement calls for the construction of a botanic garden at the Cocopah Wetland Park – an artificial marsh named for the local Cocopah (“River People”) Indian Tribe on the grounds of San Luis’s sewage treatment facility. Working with Pronatura, the Denver Botanic Gardens and the One World One Water Center, the municipality hopes to eventually convey purified wastewater to Mexican farmers, who could then lease their Colorado River water rights to American farmers or the city of Phoenix, according to Figueroa. This would generate an additional revenue stream for the Mexican municipality, he explained.

The plan also imagines developing a Red Rocks-style amphitheater near San Luis, with hopes of bringing “the Colorado River back to the sea with music.” Revitalizing the river’s flow to San Luis in perpetuity would require purchasing sufficient water rights to ensure continuous flow, which Figueroa estimated would cost about $11 million.

To accomplish this mission, River Sisters would set aside a portion of the concert revenues from the future amphitheater. If the venue could produce even $1 million annually – a fraction of the $25 million that Red Rocks Amphitheater generates for Denver each year – Figueroa said raising $11 million would be a realistic goal. It has not yet been determined exactly how much money would be necessary to revive the flow on a permanent basis all the way to the Sea of Cortez. 

“We are trying to make San Luis Río Colorado a model desert city for the world under climate change,” Figueroa said.

As far as the dual greenways are concerned, River Sisters recently worked with Allegra “Happy” Haynes, who leads the Denver’s parks and recreation department, to complete a viability study regarding the potential development of the Denver eco-park. 

Ultimately, Figueroa said he and his colleagues recommended that the park be located in the particularly vulnerable Sun Valley, a central Denver neighborhood dominated by public housing. The greenway in Sun Valley would serve as the first of many such facilities – the “pendant” within what Figueroa described as a “pearl necklace” of parks, all of which would have historical and cultural significance to Colorado River inhabitants, as well as municipal funding for sustained maintenance.

Already, according to Figueroa, the city of Denver has allocated $2 million for the park’s planning stage and has committed to launching this phase in 2020. It helps that the city had been considering building a park in Sun Valley for many years, with the active engagement of both the local community and Denver Housing Authority, Figueroa said. Ongoing funding for the park’s maintenance is most likely to come from Denver Parks and Recreation, but Denver Housing Authority has also expressed interest in co-managing the facility, he added.

“Denver Parks and Recreation has enjoyed working with the River Sisters Latino Advisory Committee over the past year and we are excited that they have identified a location in Sun Valley as a potential sister park site to San Luis Río Colorado,” a spokeswoman for Denver Parks and Recreation said in a statement.

The park would run along western bank of the South Platte River in Sun Valley, from Weir Gulch north to Lakewood Gulch, Figueroa said. 

The South Platte River along the edge of Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, with Empower Field at Mile High Stadium in the background. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Stressing that the park “will recognize the contribution of Latinos to the culture and identity of Denver,” the Denver Parks and Recreation spokeswoman confirmed that the Sun Valley site will be established in association with the neighborhood’s broader redevelopment, which is being led by the Denver Housing Authority. 

“We are excited to begin the design planning process for the park this year with our partners at DHA,” she added.

Meanwhile, down on the delta

In San Luis Río Colorado, meanwhile, River Sisters is working with Pronatura to develop a draft proposal for the local greenway, which would include a 550-650 yard lagoon under the Colorado River Toll Bridge. After evaluating a number of options with researchers at the University of Baja California, the team concluded that water would best reach the park via the nearby Canal Revolución. This could be made possible due to the most recent Colorado River agreements between the U.S. and Mexico, which allow for binational recreational water use, Saldaña said. Funding could potentially come from private businesses, nonprofits or the government, she explained.

Regardless of these technical details, Saldaña stressed the importance of moving forward with the project – not only to revive a historical water resource, but also to rehabilitate a shadowy corner of the city that increasingly provides troublemakers a perfectly remote “place to hide something.” 

By installing lights and other park infrastructure, as well as staffing the site with security guards, this currently dodgy destination could become a safe haven for community recreation, she said. The area beneath the Colorado River Toll Bridge is also uniquely large enough to host such a park, in a city that has a very minimal amount of green space, according to Saldaña.

“So it is a place that every sector needs – economic, social, environmental, safety,” she said. “Every sector will benefit from that project because it’s one that’s needed by the community.”

Ultimately, however, Saldaña sees the project’s success as crucial “because of what the water symbolizes for San Luisinos.”

“There are generations, regardless of whether it’s mine or ones before me, that remember when the river used to bring water,” she added, “There’s a strong connection with that place. They long to be able to use the space again. And if it has water, that’s better.”

Sharon Udasin is a Ted Scripps Fellow at the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism. Gregory Ramirez, a graduate student at the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU, translated interviews with Spanish-speaking sources.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:16 a.m. on Feb. 24, 2020, to correctly describe what $11 million raised by a Red Rocks-like amphitheater might fund. That is the cost of restoring the flow of the Colorado River to San Luis in Mexico in perpetuity. It is unknown how much it would cost to permanently restore flows in the river on to the Sea of Cortez.

Email: Twitter: @sharonudasin