Courtesy of Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area Corporation
One of the restored sections of the Lower Colorado River. What was until recently a barren wasteland of litter and meth labs is now a thriving ecosystem.

Saving America's Nile: How the Quechan Are Rehabbing the Colorado River

Lee Allen

The Colorado River, once home to riverboats and a source of liquid sustenance to many, has been referred to as America’s Nile, the most important river in the Southwest. Until recently a section of the lower Colorado with the city of Yuma on one side and the Quechan Indian tribe on the other was a no- man’s land. It would still be that way if not for the cooperative efforts of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.

Where the riverbanks were once home to thickets of 20-foot-tall non-native vegetation that hid trash dumps, hobo camps and meth labs, now can be found an oasis, a connection to the river via the Yuma Wetlands project.

“The National Heritage Area has brought tribal authorities, government agencies, local businesses and farmers together in a way that similar sites around the country could learn from,” said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-3rd District. “It’s a nonpartisan way to keep a good thing going.”

“It’s amazing we’ve all gotten along so well for over a decade,” said Brian Golding, Quechan Tribal Economic Development Director and one of the key project partners in which the tribe is principle landowner, along with the City of Yuma, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Arizona Game & Fish Department and some private landholders. To date, more than a third of the 1,200 acres involved has been restored, to the delight of the tribe.

“We have a strong religious and cultural connection to the water, and due to all the nefarious activities that were going on, we became disconnected from something we drew power from,” said Golding. “That’s one of the reasons the tribe got involved in this restoration and, in the process, became the first tribe to have entered into one of these agreements with the multi-species conservation plan for the lower Colorado River. That’s a significant first.”

Also significant is the funding allocation—a yearly Congressional appropriation of $350,000 for the next 50 years, as well as a $50,000 tribal contribution for restoration and upkeep activities.

“Returning some balance to the river is ambitious, positive and fun,” Golding said, adding that development of a Quechan Riverfront Park is on the drawing board.

“When I first got here, there was a literally impenetrable quarter mile of thick vegetation allowing no river access,” said Charles Flynn, executive director of the rehab project. “It took three years of planning and consensus building before we got a half million dollar grant that was immediately put to use cleaning up the first 100 acres of riverbank. We pulled out the jungle of salt cedars and planted native grasses as an understory.”

Early on, what is now a model for wetlands restoration in the desert southwest was questionable, with success coming in the face of significant obstacles. 


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