By Blake Herzog
Leaders of a nationwide organization visited Yuma recently as part of the launch of an effort to spark more Latino engagement in water conservation efforts involving the Colorado River.
Maite Arce, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Hispanic Access Foundation, visited here as part of a statewide tour of meetings with faith leaders, elected officials and other local leaders to lay the groundwork for future meetings and action to save the overburdened river.
She said that in Yuma, "There was concern about visiting with elected officials -- 'our voice will not be heard' -- but they realized through the dialog with one another that by working together with one another and other community voices, they can become a strong voice on the issue of water.”
Her trip to Arizona followed the release of the foundation's report "The Mighty Colorado," which details the strain the river's water supplies are under and the growth of the Latino population and its influence.
Across the state, she and foundation operations/program assistant Luke Argleben screened a 14-minute documentary about Yuma's Hispanic community and its economic, cultural and spiritual ties to the river, "Leche y Miel" (Milk and Honey).
Louie Gradias of Gadsden recalls how wide the Colorado was when he was a kid, and hearing stories of when it was even bigger, before the first dams were built. "People overlook the fact of water, they take it for granted. But when they go down and say, 'Oh, there's a river,' but to me there's a creek. There's not a river anymore.
"My grandmother, back in the early 1900s, used to go up and down the river in a paddleboat. Now there's no need; you just get high boots and you walk across," he said.
Pastor Victor Venalozo of Iglesia Betania preaches about wise stewardship of natural resources and performs baptisms in the river at Gateway Park. Farmworker Jose Gonzales and wife, Olga, talk about their devotion to the area fed by the river and the life it has given them and their children.
Arce said her visit to Yuma, as well as Tucson, Phoenix and Nogales, proved there is a lot of interest in becoming more engaged in water conservation policy.
In meeting with 30 Yuma religious leaders, she met a few who work in agriculture and have some understanding about the threat of drought to the water supply, but who told her the local community needs more information about conditions on the river and conservation methods.
Many said they would like to meet their counterparts in the other Arizona cities included on the tour so they could form a unified position and voice about water.
Later this year, the foundation plans to set up bilingual public meetings in the Yuma area, set up field trips to water system sites and other important locations, and organize trips for leaders to Lake Mead and for youth to the Grand Canyon.
They're also seeking input and presentations from local water experts, like Charles McCaughey, a mechanical engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
McCaughey said he was contacted by the Hispanic Access Coalition last month and hopes to be able to give some talks to the Latino leaders later this year.
"I think it behooves everybody to gain an understanding of the limitations we're dealing with, in how it's managed," he said.
The Hispanic Access Foundation's report and film about the Colorado River are available at www.hispanicaccess.org/arizonas-mighty-colorado.