Corridors for Cats: Conservationists Work to Keep At-Risk Jaguar Populations Connected

ALAMOS, Mexico – This is a “pueblo magico” (magic town), rich in beauty and cultural and historic significance. It’s also near an important ecological crossroads in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

The foothills are home to the northernmost tropical deciduous forest in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s a critical connection point between jaguars that roam Sonora and its neighboring state, Sinaloa, said Ramon Ojeda, who is the geographic information system coordinator on the nearby Reserva Monte Mojino.

The Monte Mojino Reserve is a 16,000-acre patchwork of former ranches pieced together to make a private reserve in Sonora. (Photo courtesy of Ramon Ojeda)

“This is the natural protected area Sierra Alamos-Rio Cuchujaqui,” he said as we drove through a 230,000-acre, federally protected area. “Inside the federal protected area is Reserva Monte Mojino.”

The reserve is a 16,000-acre patchwork of former ranches pieced together to make a private reserve.

“What we’re trying to do is bring the level of conservation to a stricter level than they have in the federal protected area,” Ojeda said.

Because even most federally protected land is privately owned in Mexico, the government can only provide certain protections. For example, cattle ranching and some mining are being allowed in the protected area. On the private reserve, Ojeda said, those kinds of human incursions are kept out.

Residents of Alamos, Sonora, celebrate Jaguar Day every October. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Resident Cats and Visiting Cats

Until a few years ago, he said, researchers thought jaguars only passed through here. But they started a monitoring program in 2014, and three years later, one of the camera traps snapped a photo of a pregnant jaguar, La Meche. That’s a sign of a resident population.

Alejandro Sauceda (right), who has been a ranger on Reserva Monte Mojino for a decade, has never seen a live jaguar. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

As we hiked through the dry undergrowth to the spot Meche was photographed, park ranger Alejandro Sauceda said the endangered big cat was photographed for three consecutive days in 2017.

“It was the first days of April,” he said. “And she was right here, by this little pool of water.”

Sauceda has been a park ranger on the reserve for 10 years, after the ranch he used to work on was purchased by Reserva Monte Mojino. He has never seen a jaguar, he said, but he knows they’re here, both residents and visitors passing through.

The Sinaloa Corridor

“If connectivity between Sinaloan jaguars and the northernmost jaguars in Sonora is broken, in the worst-case scenario, the Sonoran jaguar could become isolated,” Ojeda said.

Cut off from genetic diversity, they would become vulnerable and eventually die out, he said, adding, “that would destroy the hopes of the United States that someday jaguars would return to Arizona.”

“The only corridor that currently has no population at the end of it is the one in Arizona,” agreed Howard Quigley, director of the jaguar program director and conservation science executive director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. He also was co-lead on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jaguar recovery plan released in April.

Quigley said re-establishing a breeding population of jaguars in the United States depends on three things in Mexico: protecting jaguars in Sonora, protecting jaguars in Sinaloa, and making sure those two core populations can connect.

(Map courtesy of Panthera)

“You need to have core populations that are well-protected,” he said. “And you need to have corridors between them to make sure that that lifeblood of gene flow is going to maintain those populations.”

The problem is, right now there are limited protections in the Sinaloa corridor between Reserva Monte Mojino and a jaguar reserve in central Sinaloa, said Quigley, who calls it a “no-man’s land between Mazatlan and Alamos.”

Another problem: President Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Borderland Corridors

Back in Alamos – a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with Spanish colonial buildings – Lydia Lozano drives around town showing off colorful murals of jaguars painted on the walls of schools, restaurants and other buildings. They’re part of the annual Dia del Jaguar, or Jaguar Day celebration, each October.

“You know, if you want to protect your jaguar population in Arizona, whether it’s one, two or three jaguars, you have to work with Mexico. And that’s reality,” said Lozano, Mexico director for Nature and Culture International, a San-Diego-based organization that runs Reserva Monte Mojino.

Corazon, a jaguar that was killed near the Northern Jaguar Reserve, graces a wall in Alamos, Sonora. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

The few jaguars that are seen roaming Arizona have to be able to cross the border to breed, she said. The Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan included at least two places where jaguars can cross the border.

Many biologists would like to see many more borderland corridors safeguarded from additional border barriers.

“So you have this jaguar recovery plan made in the U.S., but everything has to be done in Mexico,” Lozano said.

“And it’s pretty obvious, but that’s how you know that we’re all connected. You’re talking about a species that has been forever connected through America. I’m just happy to find these partners that do understand that having a wall, it’s unnatural.”

Women in El Sabinito Sur, near the jaguar reserve, embroider cloth with images of the big cats. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

The Bigger Picture

Lozano said for a long time conservation organizations had limited collaboration in Mexico because of stiff competition for resources. But she believes partnerships, whether they’re between the U.S. and Mexico, or Sonora and Sinaloa, are the best way to protect the jaguar across its northern range.

“I think NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and also donors are shifting into the vision of protecting something bigger than just dots on a map,” she said.

Instead, they’re finding ways to share information and skills between groups and between isolated reserves, slowly stitching together pieces of the jaguar corridor.

“It’s at a very small scale compared to the jaguar corridor,” she said. “But it’s working.”

Jaguars numbers remain low throughout Mexico – there are only an estimated 4,100 in the entire country – and it could take decades for their numbers reach healthy levels, Lozano said.

Conservation and species recovery, she said, are a long-term commitment.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Big Cats, Cameras and Coexistence: Learning to Live with Jaguars

SAHUARIPA, Mexico – A century ago, jaguars roamed much of the Southwest, including most of Arizona. Today, the only glimpses of the endangered big cats in the United States are caught on cameras just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a recovery plan released in April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said bringing jaguars back to the U.S. means protecting the population south of the border in Mexico, which is estimated at 120 animals. That’s what the Northern Jaguar Reserve in central Sonora is trying to do.

Carmina Gutiérrez, a biologist with the Northern Jaguar Reserve, works beneath a jaguar painting in her office in Sahuaripa, Sonora. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Saving Big Cats in Sonora

It’s late May in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental range. Dry grasses and gray-brown twigs crunch underfoot as biologist Miguel Gómez and his colleagues trudge up an overgrown trail to check motion-activated camera traps on the Northern Jaguar Reserve, a private protected area about 130 miles south of the U.S. border.

The Norther Jaguar Reserve was created in 2003 when the Mexican conservancy Naturalia purchased the 10,000-acre Rancho los Pavos in northeastern Sonora.

The cameras are tucked into hillsides and arroyos, and fastened to trees. Gómez clicks through photos of vultures, javelina, foxes and, most important, cats: mountain lions, bobcats, lots of ocelots. Then, finally, a jaguar.

“There it is, the jaguarón,” Gómez said, his colleague whistling at the sight of the endangered cat.

Miguel Gómez adjusts the position of a jaguar camera. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Caught midstride, the jaguar’s unique pattern of rosette spots were illuminated by the camera flash as it strolled through a palm-shadowed arroyo just a few nights before.

“Just knowing that you’re walking in a place where a jaguar has been a day, two days, two hours, before is something not very many people have the chance to do,” Gómez said.

He has spent more than a decade tracking and studying jaguars in this region. But he’s still awestruck to walk in the footsteps of the huge cat.

“It’s something really special,” he said.

A Diminishing Species

Jaguars are shy, solitary animals with territories that can span hundreds of miles, Gómez said. But habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans has meant both their numbers and range have diminished.

A century or so ago, jaguars roamed from southern Argentina all the way north into much of the southwestern United States, including parts of Texas, News Mexico, California and most of Arizona. Now, most U.S. sightings are in the mountain wilderness of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

A teacher and students with EcoGuardian Club in Sahuaripa show their best jaguar roars in front of a mural they painted. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)
The EcoGuardian Club in Sahuaripa painted this mural in their town. “We want to protect the jaguars because if not they’ll go extinct, and we won’t see them. We’ll be left all alone,” says Claudia, 11. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments now consider Panthera onca an endangered species. But many biologists worry a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, as well as expansion and fortification of existing barriers, will threaten conservation and make it harder for jaguars to re-establish north of the border.

In its recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that the best way to bring jaguars back to the U.S. is by protecting the estimated 120 jaguars that live in Sonora, expanding that population and maintaining cross-border corridors that jaguars can use to move northward.

Coexisting with Big Cats

Central to that plan are such efforts as the 55,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve, which was created 16 years ago by buying former ranch land and turning it into a haven for the northernmost breeding population of jaguars in the world. Here, jaguars and other animals can roam free without roads, mines, hunting or other human interference, Gómez said.

“The goal of the Northern Jaguar Project is to safeguard jaguars in this region,” he said. “And because the jaguar is an umbrella species, we’re protecting the rest of the plants and animals in the ecosystem at the same time.”

The 55,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve is 130 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

But it’s not enough just to buy up land for the reserve, he said. Jaguars live in and roam much larger areas. And once they leave the reserve, one of the biggest threats to the northern jaguar in Sonora is retaliation, he said. A jaguar kills a rancher’s cattle – or the rancher thinks it has – so the rancher traps and kills the cat.
“The perception here that the jaguar is a predator to cattle is one of the primary problems we have,” Gómez said.

So to break that cycle, in 2007 the reserve started Viviendo con Felinos, or Living With Cats, a voluntary program for local ranchers. If they allow biologists with the reserve to place and monitor cameras on their property, the reserve will pay them every time a picture of a cat is taken on their land. Ranchers also have to agree not to hunt cats or their prey, and reserve biologists work with them to manage their livestock in a way that discourages depredation, or cats killing cattle.

For ranchers like Diego Ezrré, it seems to be working.

Changing Perspectives

Every week, Ezrré drives his well-worn 1989 Toyota 4×4 up the mountainside from his home in the little town of Sahuaripa to his 2,000-acre Rancho El Calabozo, just south of the jaguar reserve.

On a good day, the 45-mile trip takes him four hours, he said. It took us six, crawling up the rocky dirt road overlooking deep canyons and towering rock formations. It’s hot and barren at this time of year in this part of the Sierra Madre. But as soon as the monsoon storms start, everything changes, turning lush almost overnight.

Ezrre has been part of the Viviendo con Felinos program since the beginning.

“At first, the attraction was the money,” he acknowledged. “But most of the ranchers who are in the program, our perspective has changed. We realize that the jaguars aren’t such a threat. They don’t cause nearly as much damage as illness and other things.”

Diego Ezrré runs cattle on his land just south of the Northern Jaguar Reserve. He is part of the Viviendo con Felinos program, which helps protect the endangered cats. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Ezrré calls the Northern Jaguar Reserve a “good neighbor.” Since the reserve blocked off the land to hunting and worked with other ranches to do the same, jaguars passing through his property are less likely to target cattle because there are plenty of deer and javelina, he said.

It’s that kind of change that has made the Viviendo con Felinos program popular, said Carmina Gutiérrez, a biologist for the Northern Jaguar Reserve.

“There is a big waiting list,” she said with a laugh. “At the beginning, in 2007, nobody wanted to work with us. But now they know that it’s better to have wildlife than to kill wildlife, so they are realizing they want to be part of this.”

Seventeen ranches covering more than 88,000 acres are part of the program, Gutiérrez said. That’s more doubled the area where biologists can track, study and protect jaguars.

But change is slow, she said, and a lot depends on the choices the next generation of cattle ranchers make for their land.

“We don’t want them to decide not to be a cattle rancher, no, but to be a good cattle rancher,” she said.

Hope for the Future

As the morning bell rang at the local secondary school in Sahauripa, a group of kids ran across the street to a nearby basketball court to show off a mural they painted. Rolling green hills covered with trees, flowers, birds and, of course, a pair of jaguars.

Conservationists have dubbed this big cat Zapatos. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)
Libelula saunters past a camera. (Photo courtesy of Nothern Jaguar Reserve)

“We want to protect the jaguars because if not they’ll go extinct, and we won’t see them. We’ll be left all alone,” said 11-year-old Claudia, one of a couple dozen members of the EcoGuardian Club.

The reserve hosts workshops and campouts where these students learn that having jaguars in their midst isn’t a threat but an asset. And it’s making an impact, teacher Ramón Córdova said.

“They have a different perspective than my generation,” he said. “Little by little, they’re learning that it’s something special, that their home is like a sanctuary for these animals, and that they should want to take care of them.”

Still, there’s a long way to go to fully protect the northern jaguar even just in this corner of Mexico, Gutiérrez said.

“The work to try to change the mind for the whole community will be very, very difficult, and maybe I won’t see the results,” she said. “Maybe that will be my son, my grandson, something like that. But I think we’re doing what we can.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

More Visitors Plus Less Funding Could Equal a Troubled Future for Arizona State Parks

PHOENIX – State parks benefit conservation and community health. But those benefits come at a cost — one that could soon grow prohibitively expensive, according to new research.

The study appears in the journal PNAS.

From 1984 to 2017, 25 percent more people attended Arizona state parks, yet funding over the past decade has dropped by 30 percent.

That’s a problem, because higher visitation is the biggest driver of state park operational costs.

Lead author Jordan Smith of Utah State University and colleagues found that, following current trends, such expenditures could increase more than 750 percent by midcentury.

“And as a result, state parks systems need more funding from state legislators and other revenue sources to continue to provide those outdoor recreation opportunities at their current level of quality,” he said.

Graphic by Jordan W Smith/Utah State University
Graphic by Jordan W. Smith/Utah State University

Arizona is ranked 46th in percentage of budget allocated to state parks.

Smith said a growing trend among state legislatures is to avoid appropriation increases by requiring state parks to raise their own revenue.

“They’ll say, ‘You can increase user fees, you can charge more for particular services,’ whatever it is to bring in more money.”

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Such fee increases partly explain why revenue within state park systems has gone up over the past three or four years. But Smith questions whether such an approach will prove viable over the long term as a means of providing an affordable public good.

“The state parks have to have some buy-in from state legislatures and an increasing amount of money coming from their state budgets,” he said.

States are also considering options such as sponsorship by private companies and adding taxes to sales of outdoor equipment.

In Colorado River’s Final Hundred Miles, Small Signs of Life Return

LAGUNA GRANDE, BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — It’s mid-morning in the Sonoran desert and already the temperature is rising.

Karen Schlatter suggests we find some shade, a relatively easy task at Laguna Grande, a restoration site along the Colorado River’s historic channel in Mexico. It’s managed by the Sonoran Institute, where Schlatter is associate director of the binational environmental group’s Colorado River Delta program.

We head over to a stand of 30-foot cottonwood trees within the intensely managed site. Walking through the canopy, away from the direct sun, the temperature drops quickly.

“This forest here is probably five years old,” Schlatter said. “Trees and habitat can establish really quickly in the Colorado River Delta when you give it the adequate conditions: water, sunlight and not very high soil salinity.”

A stand of trees are reflected in a pool of water at Laguna Grande, a restoration site in the Colorado River delta, managed by the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Zig-zagging around us, among the trees, is a sprawling network of irrigation ditches. It’s almost laid out like a farm. Instead of the food crops grown all around this site, Schlatter’s team grows trees and willows, prime habitat for birds, coyotes, frogs and other wildlife. The whole site only receives water a couple times a year.

Midway through our walk, we come across a dusty trail leading from the woods down to a pool of water in the Colorado River’s channel.

“Yeah, so this is a beaver trail,” Schlatter explained. “We had beavers arrive to the site, I think five years ago. Two years ago we had an entire beaver family and there were little baby beavers running everywhere and everyone was freaking out.”

Karen Schlatter helps manage Colorado River restoration work for the binational environmental group, the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

This place is an attempt to give a glimpse at what the Colorado River Delta used to be when the river emptied into the Pacific Ocean — a healthy mix of cottonwood forests, vast lagoons and thriving estuaries.

But for the last 50 years, the delta has become a husk of its former self.

Since then, growing cities and farms in the Southwest have claimed more and more water promised to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, leaving its delta in northern Mexico dry. The delta’s problem isn’t one caused by drought and aridity. It’s the byproduct of a river promised to too many people, collateral damage in the effort to make the desert Southwest capable of supporting millions of acres of crops and burgeoning cities.

Within the last 15 years, though, the countries that rely on the river — the U.S. and Mexico — have begun committing both funding and water to restore portions of the dried-out delta and bring some life back to the Colorado River’s final hundred miles.

“A Scarce Resource”

The water arrives at Laguna Grande the same way it arrives at farms in Mexico’s Mexicali Valley. It comes here via a network of irrigation canals that criss-cross the valley, delivering the Colorado River’s water. A concrete-lined canal passes right by the restoration site.

The water is either purchased from farmers within the valley by a trust, or water dedicated to restoration by the U.S. and Mexico. Under an agreement called Minute 323, 210,000 acre-feet of water will flow to sites like Laguna Grande until 2026. A portion of that water is made available by making irrigation upgrades within the Mexicali Valley, and the U.S. committed $31.5 million to fund those upgrades.

“Both countries have an interest in restoring the Colorado River Delta,” Schlatter said. “Particularly Mexico is interested in restoring the habitat and some of that economic value that was lost. And the U.S., because this is a binational river, also has an interest in helping Mexico do that.”

A previous agreement, called Minute 319, allowed for a pulse flow through some of the restoration sites and some water for so-called base flows, or water that would be delivered more deliberately to the restoration areas.

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farm fields in the Mexicali valley, creating patches of green in the Sonoran Desert. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC/LightHawk)

Under Minute 323, $9 million is set aside for restoration work, split equally among the U.S., Mexico and a set of environmental organizations that work in both countries. Another $9 million is committed to an ecological monitoring program. Karl Flessa at the University of Arizona is part of that team of scientists gathering data and observations from the delta.

“These are parks,” Fless said. “Think of them as little green parks scattered along the course of the river.”

So far, Flessa’s group of scientists have found a dramatic increase in the number and species of birds coming here. Other wildlife are making a comeback. Flessa says the early results are promising.

A report published in December 2018 by the International Boundary and Water Commission found the “abundance and diversity of birds in the riparian corridor increased 20% and 42% after the 2014 pulse flow.” That burst of bird activity did diminish after 2014, but remained higher in the managed restoration areas.

“The river is dried up below Morelos Dam (at the U.S.-Mexico border),” Flessa said. “And restoring some of that flow below the dam even to small park-like restoration areas, that’s restoring a little bit of environmental justice.”

“It is for Wildlife and for People”

A few miles upstream of Laguna Grande, whitewater gushes out of an irrigation canal into another restoration site, El Chausse.

Adrian Salcedo of Restauremos el Colorado manages water at Chausse. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Adrian Salcedo manages the flow of water for Restauremos El Colorado, a Mexican environmental group. It receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“This site is very complex, maybe more than other sites because of the water management,” Salcedo said through a translator.

Chausse is meant to replicate a bend in the Colorado River. Teams here ripped out invasive species like saltcedar, and planted native vegetation. Instead of Laguna Grande’s bare, dry furrows, the site is more “natural-looking” with water flowing through multiple channels. Achieving that look and feel, with grassy marshes, takes a lot more resources.

“We have the water rights to make this place possible now,” Salcedo said. “But thinking about the future it could be complicated to restore this kind of habitat at this level, because water could be more scarce.”

The restoration sites also employ local workers needed to manage the flow of water, plant native trees and host visitors. They’ve become regular stops for groups of school children.

“It is for wildlife and for people,” Salcedo said. “In the beginning the plan was to just restore the river, the riparian vegetation and then when you get that back, the wildlife will start to come. Birds, mammals, polecats, coyotes.

“Then when the people see that, they want to come to the area and help.”

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 1: Five Years Later, Effects Of Colorado River Pulse Flow Still Linger

Like the entire Colorado River basin, climate change will put these restoration sites to the test, turning up the heat, increasing evaporation and diminishing water supplies.

“People are always asking, ‘Are you taking climate change into account?’” said the National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Pitt. “And we are in that we know that water will continue to be scarce and scarcer. And so we’re trying to use it to greatest effect.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

For example, Pitt said, in the latest U.S.-Mexico Colorado River agreements both countries spelled out how to handle shortages, and ensured restoration efforts wouldn’t be sidelined if supplies became more scarce.

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 2: As the Colorado River Basin Dries, Can an Accidental Oasis Survive?

Before leaving the site, we head down to a marsh, where tall grasses have taken root in a shallow pool. A secretive marsh bird called a sora has captured the attention of some of the site’s staff.

Alejandra Calvo, of environmental group Pronatura Noroeste, pulls out her phone to mimic the bird’s call. (The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

The tiny, spindly-legged sora weaves through the reeds and calls back, making a “kerwee” sound from its corn kernel-colored beak. It walks like it’s late for a midday appointment.
Disappointed to find only a group of gawking humans and not a mate, the bird eventually heads back into the grass.

“Nobody intentionally dried out the Colorado River Delta, but it happened,” Pitt said. “When we had our eyes open to look at it and say, ‘Oh that’s terrible, what have we done?’ it took a kind of high level sovereign-to-sovereign agreement to start doing something about it.”

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River delta, and part of an ongoing project covering the Colorado River watershed, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Special thanks for help in making this series possible to Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca, Will Worthington, Jim Afinowich, Esther Duke, Christine Steele and Esther Honig.

As the Colorado River Basin Dries, Can an Accidental Oasis Survive?

CIÉNEGA DE SANTA CLARA, Mexico — Juan Butrón-Méndez navigates a small metal motorboat through a maze of tall reeds here in the Mexican state of Sonora. It’s nearing sunset, and the sky is turning shades of light blue and purple.

The air smells of wet earth, an unfamiliar scent in the desert.

Butrón-Méndez lives nearby and works for the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste as a bird monitor. (Pronatura’s work receives financial support from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

He cuts the motor in an open stretch of water he calls the “scary lagoon,” ringed by tall grasses that rise from the thigh-high water. Without the boat’s droning hum, coastal birds appear over the reeds, and come in for a water landing.

Tall grasses rise from the shallow water at the Cienega de Santa Clara in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

American coots, with their white bills and dark grey feathers, cackle as they swim. They’re interspersed among broad-winged, yellow-beaked pelicans. Other birds, just silhouettes, dart along the surface, skimming for insects before dark. There’s no sign of them tonight, but several species of threatened or endangered marsh birds — like the Ridgway’s rail — call this place home too.

Butrón-Méndez has explored this wetland since its creation, watching over the course of decades as the shape-shifting oasis was born.

“Water started to flow to this place in the 1970s. I would walk around here without having to worry about getting wet,” Butrón-Méndez said though a translator. “If there wasn’t water, it’s a dry place.”

He’s been called the Ciénega’s patron saint, able to rattle off its history and the names of the birds, fish and mammals that live here.

The wetland is fed by a concrete canal that removes drainage water from American farms across the border in Arizona. The canal is called the MODE — Main Outlet Drain Extension. The salty runoff inadvertently created this oasis in the middle of the Sonoran desert, a perfect stopover for migratory birds on their journey along the Pacific coast.

“For the birds that migrate from the United States to the south, this is a place of rest, a place for nutrients, to give them strength to continue flying to wherever they’re going,” he said.

But there’s a problem. As the Colorado River basin heats up and dries out like climate projections predict, Butrón-Méndez is concerned people will stop thinking of the water that flows to the wetland as waste, find a way to use it and, in turn, harm the Ciénega.

“The biggest threat that has me thinking, at times,” he said, “although you won’t believe it, I’m thinking that one day when we least expect it the United States will say, ‘No more water for the wetlands of Santa Clara.’”

Juan Butrón-Méndez works for Pronatura Noroeste, a Mexican environmental group, and monitors birds at the Cienega de Santa Clara. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Geographical, topographical and political boundaries shape the Colorado River’s delta. The U.S-Mexico border bisects the delta, and its fate is controlled by governments, water agencies, farm groups and conservationists on both sides.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Ciénega de Santa Clara, one of the delta’s few wetlands, sustained by a water source with an uncertain future.

Wasted Water

The Ciénega was born in 1977 when the U.S. began draining salty agricultural runoff to the Santa Clara slough, near the Gulf of California. Years prior, the U.S. agreed not to send degraded water to Mexico, a near-constant tension between the two countries since they signed their first Colorado River treaty in 1944.

In a 1973 agreement called the “Permanent and Definitive Solution to the International Problem of the Salinity of the Colorado River,” President Richard Nixon’s administration agreed to a limit on how salty water would be at when delivered at the U.S.-Mexico border.

To keep the river from becoming loaded with salt, someone had to devise a way to keep the farm runoff from ending up in it. That’s how the MODE canal came to be. After irrigating lettuce fields and date palms in salty soil near Yuma, Arizona, the concrete-lined MODE would take the leftover water across the border close to the Pacific Ocean to dispose of it.

No one meant to create a haven for birds and other wildlife in the dried-out Colorado River delta in the process. But by sending about 100,000 acre-feet of water annually out into the desert, that’s what happened.

The “Permanent and Definitive Solution” also called for the creation of a treatment facility along the Colorado River that could clean up water from farms along the Gila River in southern Arizona, within the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District. Completed in 1992, the Yuma Desalting Plant became that treatment facility dreamed up in the 1970s.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Desalting Plant has never been fully operational since it was built in the early 1990s. Filled with obsolete desalination technology, it would require costly upgrades before it could be fired up. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Since it was finished the plant has only run a handful of times, and never at full capacity. It remains in “ready reserve” status and costs upwards of $2 million each year to maintain.

“The Yuma Desalting Plant is nothing but a tool in the toolbox,” said Mike Norris, who manages the plant for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s a costly tool to operate.”

During prolonged dry spells though, costly tools become more reasonable. The plant could treat the salty wastewater, send it to Mexico for use on farms and cities to meet treaty obligations, and allow the U.S. to conserve more water on its side of the border, possibly reducing the risk of a shortage declaration in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin.

Water agencies in the state of Arizona, which would be hit hardest with cutbacks in a shortage, have been particularly keen to look at what operation of the desalting plant might look like.

“If we continue in the drought situation, as Lake Mead drops, the plant could be considered as one of the tools to take out of the toolbox to help conserve water in Lake Mead,” Norris said.
But it’s not like you can flip a switch and turn this facility on right away.

“There’s a lot of controversy of what that all that looks like,” Norris said. “The big concern is if we ever operate this plant at 100 percent, we’d be directing most of the water into the plant and then what would be going to the Ciénega would be the concentrate water, the higher saline water.”

A small replica of the Yuma Desalting Plant lights up and illustrates how salty runoff from Arizona farms would be treated. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The Ciénega wouldn’t dry up completely if the plant were to begin operating. Instead, it would receive a greatly diminished amount of water, and what it did receive would be highly saline. The super salty water would likely kill the Ciénega’s cattails and reduce the wetland’s size. It could also see sharp spikes in concentrations of selenium, making it inhospitable to fish and birds.

The wetland does have some protections. The Mexican government has designated the Ciénega as a Biosphere Reserve in the Colorado River Delta. It’s also been recognized for having “great ecological significance” by the Ramsar convention, an intergovernmental treaty on the value of wetlands. If the U.S. were to run the Yuma Desalting Plant it would likely trigger a reconsultation of previous agreements between the two countries.

Because it has sat idle for so long, the Yuma Desalting Plant needs millions of dollars in improvements before it could be fired up, including replacement of aluminum pipes and construction of a chlorine containment facility.

Funds to make those updates aren’t secure.

“We have not been able to get the necessary funds to run the plant at full capacity,” said Maria Ramirez, who oversaw the Yuma Area Office for Reclamation for years. She recently retired.
“I don’t know that it will ever run at full capacity,” she said.

Eyes have turned toward the plant this year as states that rely on the Colorado River are finalizing drought contingency plans. Under the Lower Basin’s plan, the federal government committed to conserve 100,000 acre-feet of water a year, roughly the same amount of water currently being sent to the Ciénega.

“Reclamation is looking at all cost-effective means of meeting this commitment,” said Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron in an email.

Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca and Juan Butrón-Méndez of Pronatura Noroeste navigate a small boat through the reeds at the Cienega de Santa Clara. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The Delta’s Past Life

Driving to the Ciénega, it’s hard to imagine what the Colorado River Delta looked like when the river still flowed here. It’s bordered by miles and miles of crusty salt flats. The roads that lead to the wetland become impassable on the rare occasion it rains. They lie on top of layers of sediment — the Grand Canyon’s innards — left here as the Colorado River emptied into the ocean over millions of years.

But sitting on a boat inside the Ciénega, you can picture the delta in a past life, full of the green lagoons conservation writer Aldo Leopold described in his 1949 “A Sand County Almanac.” He explored the Colorado River Delta by canoe with his brother in 1922, nearly a decade before construction began on Hoover Dam.

The picture Leopold painted of the Colorado River Delta is a sensory experience. Gambel quails whistle. Raccoons munch. Jaguars sneak. Waters radiate an emerald green.

“When a troop of egrets settled on a far green willow,” Leopold wrote, “they looked like a premature snowstorm.”

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 1: Five Years Later, Effects Of Colorado River Pulse Flow Still Linger

Juan Butrón-Méndez said the only way to prevent the Ciénega from being harmed is for more people to know about it. One big threat, he said, is simply ignorance about its existence. If no one knows about the wetland’s value, they wouldn’t be upset if it disappeared, his thinking goes.

During our interview, he extends a standing invitation to visit anytime and get lost among the cattails.

Still, he knows about the outside pressures that weigh on the Ciénega — like climate change, growing populations, and tension between the U.S. and Mexico over immigration and trade — leaving its fate uncertain.

“The two countries, we’re neighbors right? The United States and Mexico,” Butrón-Méndez said. “Well, we need to have an agreement between the two countries, right, that (removing the water) wouldn’t happen. Because it would be a disaster.”

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River delta, and part of an ongoing project covering the Colorado River watershed, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

The Endangered Mexican Gray Wolf is Still Endangered – For Now

WASHINGTON – The National Academy of Sciences said Thursday that a six-month study determined the Mexican gray wolf is a separate subspecies from other gray wolves, which recently lost their endangered species status.

Mexican gray wolves were almost driven to extinction in the 1970s, but currently number about 100 animals in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico after decades of reintroduction efforts. Lumping them in with other gray wolves could have subjected them to more hunting, said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s definitely a positive for the Mexican gray wolf,” said Robinson, of the report’s findings.

But not everyone is a fan of the animal. Even in reduced numbers, the wolf is having an impact on ranchers in southeast Arizona, said Gaither Martin, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association.

“Every calf and cow lost (to a wolf) is money out of their pocket,” Martin said of ranchers. “That money goes away from their families and their kids’ scholarship funds.”

The NAS study was commissioned by Congress to look into the status of the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf, of which there are just 24 remaining in North Carolina. The report did not consider the animals’ endangered status, only their taxonomy, and it determined that both are distinct from the generic gray wolf.

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For the Mexican gray wolf, the study’s authors were directed to determine if they are “physically or genetically distinct enough to justify that status” of subspecies, according to the report.

Joseph Travis, a Florida State University biology professor who chaired the committee that wrote the report, said committee members “read everything in the world ever written about Mexican gray wolves” to reach their conclusion.

“There’s always been this concern that when you took the last few ones you found (in the wild) and bred them … who the hell were those guys anyway?” Travis said. “Were they really Mexican wolves, were they stray dogs, what the hell were these things?”

After looking at all the available data, he said the committee determined that the current population did, in fact, descend from Mexican gray wolves, and they are still their own subspecies.

“There is no evidence there is any domestic dog ancestry mixed in” with the Mexican wolves, Travis said, and “no evidence that they, in any case, hybridized with coyotes.”

“The Mexican gray wolf has, from its discovery, been considered a distinct wolf,” the report said. “Its size, morphology, and coloration pattern distinguish it from other North American wolves.”

The findings did not come as a surprise to Robinson, who said that “since 1929 the Mexican wolf has been identified by scientists as a unique subspecies.”

Although scientific methods have changed over the last 90 years, Robinson said “all of these different techniques have concluded that the Mexican wolf is, in the words of one assessment, ‘outside the range of variance’ of other gray wolves.”

But it is still a wolf, notes Martin.

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Not only do wolves kill cattle, he said, but cows can get so badly scared around wolves that they cannot breed. He said “good black Angus” is worth about $800 and he knows ranchers who have lost six cows this year alone. For a small operation, that can be “quite substantial.”

“Our position is we would rather not have them,” Martin said. “We feel like the wolves are a direct threat to our industry, to our producers. Bottom line we don’t see, we’ve yet to be presented a way that there’s an upside.”

Martin called it a waste of federal funds to support a species that, if it were “a natural part of the habitat here they would not need to be babysat like they are being babysat.”

“They wouldn’t need to be managed like they are being managed,” he said of the wolf’s protected status. “We will continue to fight the presence and expansion of the programs.”

Robinson has heard the same complaints from ranchers before.

“(This) was an effort, once again, with no scientific basis to try and remove federal protections from wolves,” he said of the claims that led to the NAS study. “This is what the livestock industry and their congressional allies have been attempting for a long time.”

But he said he is confident science will prevail.

“The Mexican wolf has some powerful enemies and I’m just grateful that science operates on integrity,” Robinson said.

Beetles vs. birds: What happens when fighting nature with nature backfires?

COTTONWOOD – Fighting nature with nature seems like a good idea – unless nature doesn’t care about geography.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the southwestern willow flycatcher as endangered in 1995. There are an estimated 600 to 800 breeding pairs of the songbird scattered across the West. (Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado, USDA)

Today, the effects of a federal decision made 20 years ago to use Asian beetles to slow the spread of an invasive shrub across the West are reducing nesting habitat for an endangered songbird – the southwestern willow flycatcher.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, introduced tamarisk leaf beetles from China and Kazakhstan around the West to kill tamarisk trees, also known as salt cedars. Some of the beetles were released near Moab in eastern Utah.

“The goal of their program was to control tamarisk,” said Greg Beatty, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has led flycatcher recovery efforts since 1999. “Reduce it. Kill some plants. I don’t think they anticipated that it would kill all tamarisk, but that it would reduce its abundance.”

The beetles did their job, stripping the tamarisk of its feathery, green canopy, which often kills this fast-growing deciduous shrub. The tamarisk was introduced in the 1800s from Eurasia as an ornamental, for use in windbreaks and as a way to control stream-bank erosion.

The APHIS program wasn’t supposed to release beetles within 200 miles of where southwestern willow flycatchers nest. The birds can be found throughout the West; in Arizona, around Roosevelt Lake and along the upper Gila River. Experts calculated even if the beetles migrated south toward Arizona, the bugs would not survive the difference in climate.

But beetles don’t follow rules.

Tamarisk trees, which aren’t native to the Western Hemisphere, can be found around water in Arizona, including Roosevelt Lake east of Phoenix, where flycatchers have been found. (Photo by Rachel Charlton/Cronkite News)

“In retrospect,” Beatty said, “seems pretty clear there wasn’t really any type of geographical boundary that would have kept them where they were at.”

From the Virgin River in southwestern Utah and into the Grand Canyon and its tributaries, the beetles spread into Arizona, Beatty said.

“It’s happened faster than anybody would have expected because we didn’t expect them to be here,” he said.

Tamarisk is reviled across the West. It is notorious for crowding out native vegetation, effectively choking riparian areas, particularly along dammed waterways. Some scientists say it hogs water, leaving less for native species, although that’s in dispute. It’s considered a noxious weed in New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and Texas.

The USDA terminated the biological control program in 2010. But now there’s concern over what will happen to flycatcher habitat in Arizona.

The primary nesting habitat for the flycatcher, which was listed as endangered in 1995, is in willow trees surrounding riparian areas. However, researchers have found that flycatchers also use tamarisk.

Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, said flycatchers depend on foliage to protect their nestlings from the scorching Arizona sun.

“Even if there are willows, they’re still dependent on the salt cedar or the tamarisk,” Silver said. “So to denude or kill that tamarisk right now is really putting too much on the flycatcher for them to be able to survive long term.”

The songbirds – which are brownish-gray with white wing stripes and measure about 6 inches from beak to tail – are also faithful to their nesting sites, returning year after year.

The birds still are listed as endangered. In an email, Beatty said the flycatcher population is measured by territories, which include southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. There are 1,200 to 1,600 territories, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there will be a breeding pair per territory. That puts the number of breeding pairs at 600 to 800.

The Center for Biological Diversity successfully sued APHIS in 2013. The court’s ruling found that APHIS did not comply with the Endangered Species Act in the conservation of an endangered species.

APHIS declined to comment for this story, but the agency did provide documents that state the “greater than anticipated natural and intentional human-assisted movement of the beetle caused it to spread into flycatcher habitat.”

As for the future of the flycatcher, Beatty is concerned that habitat loss will have significant impacts.

“I think we’re going to have greater booms and busts … the status of the population will decline as the beetle expands throughout its range.”

Traffic continues to be huge air polluter – but local politics makes it hard to say no to new roads.

LOS ANGELES – Based on the annual 2018 “State of the Air” report from The American Lung Association, Los Angeles was ranked the top city spot for high ozone days out of 227 metropolitan locations.

Arizonans should be concerned too as the Grand Canyon state ranked eighth in the same category. And during the summer of 2018, Arizona exceded recommended ozone 49 times.levels and had a record 49 days of dangerous air.

Traffic combined with heat can create unsafe air and in many big cities in the west, air pollution and traffic combined are two of the biggest problems facing those areas. The problem is made worse by rapid growth, suburban sprawl and the “inversion affect,” which traps polluted area in cities near mountains.

The crux of the problem is alleviating the headache of heavy traffic while simultaneously preserving open space and endangered species.

Based on yearly transportation studies, Los Angeles is the most congested city in the country. Orange County, home to 3 million residents, connects to L.A. county and contributes to the load of traffic in the area.

With congested traffic as a main concern for most drivers in Southern California, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) has established a project involving a route from Orange County, south of LA, to San Clemente, 60 miles south of LA. Orange County is one of the largest counties in the country, home to 3 million people.

Approximately 25 million people live in Southern California, an area where most destinations are not within walking distance.

To combat the escalating population in the 1980s, state transportation officials created four new highways in the Orange County region. The purpose was to create alternative routes to Interstate 5, one of the country’s busiest highways.

Today, the state owns 51 miles of highway throughout the county The plan TSA had in mind was to connect the 241 state highway in the south portion of the O.C. to Interstate 5 freeway. It would eventually merge in San Clemente.

The plan faced several obstacles over the years, most notable lawsuits from the San Onofre coalition, comprised of organizations including the state of California.

Phoenix, ranked lower than L.A., is the fifteenth most congested state in America, based on a 2017 report from the transportation analytics company Inrix. It revealed the city has over three thousand hotspots and the 2026 cost of congestion will be $9.5 billion.

The state is also working on expansion, adding 22 miles to the South Mountain Freeway. According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, the construction is projected to be finished by the end of 2019.

Water just right: HOAs strive for green fields and conservation

PHOENIX – Jose Alvarez, a supervisor at R. H. Dupper Landscaping, stood up from changing a sprinkler nozzle on a large grassy field at a homeowner’s association in Chandler, Arizona. He surveyed the turf, a patchwork of green and brown.

“It looks terrible,” he said. “The sprinklers, they don’t have enough pressure, and they spray, like, a little bit.” He noted the rings, like miniature crop circles, created by uneven watering.

Josh Dupper said they get a lot of business fixing this kind of problem.

“Their water bills were through the roof because they were essentially flood irrigating,” Dupper said. “It still looked bad, even while they were spending a ton on water. And their landscaper just did not know what to do.”

Revamping the irrigation plan is the first step. Then, Dupper’s company uses historical evapotranspiration data and homemade software to determine how much a field gets watered. He has crews come to each site monthly to take readings and adjust settings based on the forecast.

Josh Dupper of R.H. Dupper Landscaping in the Phoenix area says his industry lags behind in the technical knowledge needed to finely-tune water use to weather conditions. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

It’s a Goldilocks approach to landscape watering: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Lawns and landscaping are polarizing symbols when we talk about water use in the desert. Some communities are paying homeowners to rip out their grass. Others, like this Chandler HOA, are trying to save water on the green fields that residents adore.

In nearby Gilbert, Arizona, Jeff Lee is trying to nudge HOAs to look at watering that way.

Lee, a water conservation specialist for the town, traces an HOA’s landscape area using Google Earth Pro, converts that to square footage, then uploads the HOA’s monthly water usage to a vendor. The vendor, Waterfluence, analyzes the data using that month’s actual weather — not the historical weather conditions Dupper uses. HOAs and landscapers can see the results on a web portal.

“We can actually show them the cost comparisons,” Lee said. “How many dollars they should’ve spent on water and how many dollars they actually did spend on water based on what the landscaper was doing.”

Lee doesn’t want HOAs to underwater their large fields, trees and shrubs. The point is to let them know if they’re hitting that Goldilocks volume of water that maintains lush grass with low levels of water waste.

This homeowners' association in Chandler, Arizona overspent on water and still had patchy results. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

The Gilbert program is free for HOAs and voluntary. Lee said about 30 percent of the town’s 205 HOAs are enrolled. He estimated Gilbert saves over 200 million gallons of water a year through the program.

If you’re using too much water, though, getting on track can be expensive.

Kayte Comes is a board member of her HOA in Peoria, northwest of Phoenix. When her community, the Village at Vistancia, chose a new landscaper, they hired a firm that prioritizes conservation. Upon that firm’s recommendation, the board decided to replace parts of their irrigation system.

“Not every HOA, unfortunately, has the funds to do that,” she said. “But it’s gonna save your HOA in the long run.”

She added that a lot of businesses are willing to work with customers to help them afford upfront costs.

Some HOAs and landscapers are turning to so-called “smart controllers,” devices that adjust watering levels automatically. But Lee, Dupper and others say the smart controller is only as smart as the landscaper who programs it. Landscapers in Arizona can get a license if they pass two exams and have four years of experience.

“Part of the problem with the industry is it’s not advancing as fast as it should in the technical aspect,” Dupper said. “Because there’s no accountability or requirement to have it.”

The state of Arizona puts a water limit on HOAs in so-called “active management areas” in the middle of the state. Even then, it only applies to those with ten acres of landscaping or more. But with an increasing awareness of tech tools and water scarcity, more HOAs may be looking for that Goldilocks volume.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Ode to the toilet, a champion of water conservation

Throughout the Western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that’s a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has played out in arid Western urban areas. Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down. The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

It’s impossible to give credit to one single solution, but one could make a strong case that the M.V.P. award for water conservation efforts should go to the modern toilet.

The toilet is the single largest user of water in the home. It uses more than the washing machine, the dishwasher, the shower or the kitchen faucet. About a quarter of all water that enters a home will flow through the toilet according to a 2016 study. Each day the average toilet will use about 33 gallons of water.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s a big improvement. In 1999 the average toilet guzzled more than 45 gallons of water daily.

The story of how the toilet became the unsung hero of water conservation includes an act of Congress, a concerted effort to hunt down old models, logs of miso paste and some serious elbow grease.

Out with the old

Theresa MacFarland lives in an historic two-story home in Longmont, Colorado with her husband and two kids. Built in 1928, it has all the vintage touches: hardwood floors, big windows, wood detailing and one really old toilet.

A little stamp on the bowl says it was built in the 1950s. MacFarland points it out to her 4-year-old daughter Althea.

“That toilet has been there longer than daddy and I have been alive,” she says. “Probably longer than grandma and grandpa have been alive.”

As aging toilets are wont to do, it started acting up. This vintage model wasn’t pulling its weight and McFarland started shopping around.

She called Resource Central, a Boulder, Colorado-based conservation group and asked for help to put in a new, more water-friendly model. Pretty soon Neka Sunlin showed up with the latest in toilet technology. Sunlin oversees the group’s toilet replacement program, Flush for the Future.

“We guesstimate this one is using about 5 gallons a flush,” she says about the old toilet. “The new one uses less than one.”

In Sunlin’s years with Resource Central, this is the oldest toilet she’s condemned to the local recycling center. By swapping it out, the McFarland family could see a significant dip in their water bill, she says.

A fast-growing alternative to high-priced Boulder, the city of Longmont has an interest in what happens in the MacFarland family’s bathroom. Water saved from their home is water that can be put to use somewhere else.

That’s why the city, along with a handful of other water providers on Colorado’s Front Range, subsidizes the cost of high-efficiency toilets and their installation. MacFarland is paying $175 for the toilet itself, the cost of installation and removal of the old toilet. Her new model retails for $160.

Sunlin says it’s an easy switch with a big pay off. With other conservation programs you first have to convince people to use less water.

“But a toilet is a toilet,” she says, “and it’s no behavior change whatsoever you literally just save water with every flush.”

In the last three years Resource Central has upgraded 2,000 toilets, which they calculate out to 500 million gallons of water saved when looking at the average lifespan of the toilet at 30 years.

“Most people don’t realize that if their toilet is more than 10 or 15 years old replacing their toilet or upgrading their toilet is one of the most impactful ways they can save water,” says Neal Lurie president of Resource Central.

The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“It can save between 200 and 300 thousand gallons of water over the life of that toilet,” he says.

In with the new

The road to high-efficiency toilets began back in 1992. The concern was less about water scarcity in the West and more about overwhelmed sewage systems on the east coast.

Congress was feeling pressure to pass national standards for water use and came up with the Energy Policy Act, a law that spawned a generation of low-flow fixtures.

For the plumbing industry, it was a huge deal.

“Absolutely, it was an extremely watershed moment, no pun intended,” says Pete DeMarco with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.

Resource Central technician Max Hartmann installs a high-efficiency toilet in this Longmont, Colorado home. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The law mandated that toilets only flush using 1.6 gallons of water or less. Throughout the 1990s, low-flush toilets flooded the market. DeMarco says even though the regulations received input from toilet manufacturers, the new models received heaps of scorn from users who complained that their new and improved toilets performed worse, unable to finish the job in a single flush.

“There were some poor-performing products back in the mid-90s. I think the regulation caught some manufacturers off guard,” he says.

In many cases, DeMarco says, manufacturers had simply reduced the amount of water a toilet used without making significant changes to its inner workings. A lower flow just couldn’t cut it.

The frustrated customers sent toilet-makers back to the drawing board. A new test from a company called Maximum Performance allowed manufacturers to demonstrate that their low-flow toilets could actually evacuate the bowl with one flush. In simulations, toilets would be loaded up with logs of miso paste to show their effectiveness.

DeMarco says toilets can’t take all the credit, but this one innovation is a big reason why cities have been able to grow and still keep their water use in check. Indoor use dropped 22 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2016, much of that due to swapping out old fixtures.

In recent years some states with water scarcity problems — like Colorado and California — have passed even tighter regulations on how much water toilets can use.

“So you basically have these high-efficiency toilets now as a matter of course. You cannot go out in a store in Colorado, in California, and buy an old toilet,” says Drew Beckwith with the environmental organization Western Resource Advocates.

The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Beckwith says conservationists have been a victim of their own success. With national standards in place and active replacement programs throughout the country, there’s not much more they can do to limit water use inside homes. All new developments are putting in high-efficiency toilets because there’s no other option in the market. And when existing homes have their old models crap out, the only replacement they’ll find will be a high-efficiency option.

“We’ve sort of done our business with respect to toilets,” Beckwith says. “And it’s time to, you know, maybe get off the pot and move on to outdoor water use which is more the focus of urban water efficiency today.”

Fixing the flush

Back at the MacFarland home, the transition is complete. The nearly 70-year-old toilet is loaded on a van bound for the recycling plant. The brand new high-efficiency toilet is hooked up and the water is flowing.

“This is going to be a huge improvement,” Theresa MacFarland says. “And it feels like with very little effort, which I’m very excited about.”

Even though some conservationists feel like the indoor water use fruit has been plucked, a 2017 Alliance for Water Efficiency study found that more than 13 million non-efficient toilets — those that flush more than 1.6 gallons — remain installed in five states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia and Texas.

Theresa MacFarland and her daughter Althea, 4, decided to scrap their 1950s-era toilet for a high-efficiency model in an effort to make their historic home more environmentally friendly. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

A nationwide push to rid the country of old toilets could have a significant effect.

If all toilets were high-efficiency indoor water use could drop an additional 35 percent to below 40 gallons per person per day, the study projected.

MacFarland says she loves the character and charm of her historic home, and says she’s focused on making it environmentally-friendly. But it takes time, energy and money to make it happen.

“We’ve been slowly trying to figure out ways to have just less water usage in this home,” she says. “Knowing in Colorado it’s such a precious resource, and we want our kids to grow up here and also recognize what comes with living in Colorado and trying to do our part.”

The Resource Central technicians ask for a practice flush to make sure it’s working right before they depart. The honor of the first flush goes to McFarland’s daughter Althea.

“Check it out. There’s this new button,” MacFarland says as she motions to her daughter. “Kind of the same as the other one, except inside the tank this is so different than the other one. This one just uses a little bit of water.”

“And it’s cleaner,” Althea says.

“And it’s cleaner, way cleaner,” MacFarland says.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.