The Colorado River Basin’s Great Crisis

The Colorado River Basin– which supplies water across 7 states and roughly 40 million residents– is in serious drought and in danger of running dry.

Red signifies extreme drought while dark red signifies exceptional drought.

From Colorado, and westward to California, the amount of water taken from the Colorado River is far outpacing the supply that Mother Nature is giving us. Many of us that ski during the winter, fish during run-off, or farm on the Western Slope have known that moisture levels haven’t been up to par recently. But a recent study by The Colorado River Research Group stated that the current and prolonged drought that the entire river basin is in shouldn’t even be considered a drought, because the word drought implies that the condition is temporary. Rather, their data shows that those of us that live in the multi-state Colorado River Basin are in a period of aridification. Which basically means that hotter and dryer conditions are here to stay. If you look at the most recent drought map published in late December 2018, by the US Drought Monitor, it doesn’t take a scientific eye to see that much of our state is hurting for more moisture.

Climate change, population growth, and mismanaged water supplies have led to this dire situation. From the year 2000 to 2014, the Colorado River experienced drought conditions that scientists say is unrivaled in the past 1,250 years. Couple that with population growth– which requires more drinking water to be drawn from the river for cities and more water used for agricultural production– and you’ll find a situation where the river and it’s reservoirs are disappearing. Lake Powell, located in southern Utah, is currently sitting at 48% capacity while Lake Mead, just outside of Las Vegas, NV, is at a dangerously low 38% of capacity. Here’s another scary number from a NASA led study, dating from 2004 to 2013, concluded that the river basin lost 17.3 trillion gallons of water! Compounding the issue even further, 75% of that lost water in the river basin is actually from ground water aquifers. That’s especially bad because ground water is irreplaceable– once it’s used it’s gone.

The new normal in Colorado River Basin reservoirs

The good news is that this problem is not going unrecognized. 6 of the 7 river basin states have agreed to sign drought contingency plans (DCPs), which would limit each state’s water consumption in the hopes of re-filling reservoirs before they reach critically low levels. Arizona is the only state which has yet to come to an agreement ratifying their DCP.

Regardless of if, or when, the 7 Colorado River Basin states implement a drought contingency plan, it’s not a long-term solution. It’s exactly what it says it is– a contingency plan. Contingencies are last case scenarios to avoid disaster.

We as Coloradans, and as a society, need to realize that this aridification that is strangling the American West is the new normal. Key studies show that the world is hotter and dryer which makes water storage and management more important than ever before. Our water planning and storage cannot be managed based on the assumption that precipitation is going to solve our problem.

We must conserve and reuse our water, carry out more efficient agricultural practices, and replace the hydroelectric energy created by Lakes Mead and Powell with other clean energies. Our quality of life and possible existence depend on immediate action.

Spread the word. Make personal changes. Call your local political leaders. This issue is too important to be ignored.

2 thoughts on “The Colorado River Basin’s Great Crisis

  1. Andrew

    Totally agree, Matty! TBF there’s a draw from southwestern states (cough, cough, looking at you, Southern California) that lie well outside the river basin. There’s going to need to be a total re-think of what it means to have water rights, and that’s going to be very messy.

    As you say, fortunately there’s a wind of change a-blowing, often starting with anglers like y’all. Keep up the good work!

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  2. Matty Valdez Post author

    Andrew– hopefully that change doesn’t take too long to implement. And is it meaningful change? From all the research I looked at, the biggest take away was that our climate is different now than in the past. If that’s the case, our changes need to keep in mind that our precipitation levels are going to be lower. Change is coming, it’s just a matter of if we are proactive or reactive to it.

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