Sandra Postel is Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society and Co-Creator of Change the Course.

Growing up a beach kid on New York’s Long Island, I might have easily gravitated to ocean conservation for my life’s work. 

But it was freshwater that grabbed me – how it sustains this amazing diversity of life on the land and in earth’s rivers and lakes. It’s a joke around National Geographic that I can get choked up about threats to freshwater mussels.

So nearly two decades ago, when I first visited the delta of the Colorado River in northwestern Mexico, I became obsessed with the idea that major rivers like the Colorado were running dry. I knew what the Colorado Delta had once been – a two-million-acre expanse of wetlands, lagoons, braided channels and towering riverside cottonwoods and willows that sustained a myriad of bird and wildlife species. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold had called it a “milk-and-honey wilderness.”

But flying low over the delta on a research trip in 1996, I saw that this once-lush and vast aquatic ecosystem had mostly dried out. The freshwater that had sustained it had been siphoned off to growing cities and farms in the desert Southwest. The river stopped flowing 90 miles before reaching the sea.

Today, nearly eighteen years later, it feels like a dream come true that officials and conservationists on both sides of the border are preparing for the release this spring of a “pulse flow” that will reconnect the Colorado to the sea, followed by base flows that will continue the delta’s revitalization. 

I never thought I would see such a day, much less play a small part in it. 

Changing the Course of the Colorado River

The picturesque Verde River flows through central Arizona.

Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

Our Change the Course (CtC) campaign – a partnership of the National Geographic Society, Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Participant Media – is investing in projects throughout the Colorado River Basin that restore flows to depleted rivers and wetlands, from headwaters to the Delta.

A major message of Change the Course is that smarter water management can restore rivers and benefit local economies at the same time.  

Our investment in the Yampa River, a beautiful headwater tributary that runs through the popular tourist town of Steamboat Springs, helped bring the river’s flow up to healthier levels during the severe drought of 2012, but also allowed fly-fishing and tubing businesses to re-open.  As the river started flowing stronger, so did cash through the local economy. 

Changing the Course

Ditch boss” Frank Geminden shows off a new automated headgate that allows the ditch to meet its users’ needs while leaving more water in the Verde.

Cheryl Zook/National Geographic

In the Verde River in central Arizona, Change the Course worked with The Nature Conservancy and local irrigators to install an automated head-gate on the valley’s 150-year-old ditch system. This “smart” gate allows farmers to take just the amount of water they need while leaving the rest for the river. Several miles of the Verde that would nearly dry up during the irrigation season now get 50 percent more flow, benefiting the river, its fish and wildlife, and the community alongside it – with no downside to irrigators. 

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of Change the Course helped make that Verde restoration project happen – and our CtC team is extremely grateful for that support.   

To date, CtC has restored nearly 1 billion gallons of water to five depleted portions of the Colorado River Basin. 

Our pledge community has surpassed 40,000 people from all fifty states and more than 100 countries, and continues to grow. With Change the Course promising to restore 1,000 gallons to a depleted ecosystem for every individual pledge to take action to conserve, we are building an expanding and virtuous cycle of freshwater stewardship and restoration. 

I am lucky to be living my dream. This spring, as the waters of the Colorado River once again touch the sea, and this summer, as the beautiful Verde flows through the ribbon of green in the Arizona desert, I will give thanks that, working together, we are changing the course of our water future in a positive way.

Sandra Postel is Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society and Co-Creator of Change the Course.

Don't miss the National Geographic series on the Colorado River. Click here to find the first post.