Vanessa Ball | 03.20.2017

At times serene, at times a raging powerhouse moving through narrow slot canyons, the Colorado River is an icon of the western United States. The river provides drinking water to over 36 million people; municipalities, agriculture, and recreation are supported by and dependent on the river and its tributaries. On the Colorado, just recreation alone brings in over $25 billion annually. Unfortunately, in recent decades, the amount of water within the banks of the Colorado River has shrunk drastically. The river is over-allocated, and there has been a resulting impact on wildlife and people alike.

With the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922, statesmen and representatives of the seven affected states and tributaries assumed that they had at last resolved the major conflicts regarding water use. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Unfortunately, the compact was based on imperfect data, as the river had been flowing at historically high levels for a period of 10 years. The amounts used to calculate allocation between the Upper Basin and Lower Basin of the Colorado would prove inconsistent with actual flow. Litigation flew back and forth over perceived wrongs. Arizona and California were particularly aggressive. Arizona felt the need to protect its rights against upstream greed, and California was growing fast and in need of water to supply its cities and intensive agriculture.

It would be nice to say that conflict has abated with time and that legal issues have settled. This hasn’t been the case. Unprecedented drought affecting both basins of the river have led to large drops in flow. To mitigate low water levels at the reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, unusual measures are being considered. An argument has been made for reducing or eliminating Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam. The idea is that Lake Mead could be topped up once more, and its hydropower output could be increased.

There would be political ramifications for any change at Glen Canyon. Any changes to the 1922 compact might upset the balance between the various water users entirely. Nature may force the issue. According ProPublica, “[Lake Powell’s] levels have dropped more than 90 feet since 1999. If they drop another 100 feet or so, the dam’s turbines begin sucking air.” Loss of power generation at Glen Canyon would have a ripple effect across other smaller dams and water diversion systems. The money earned from hydropower at Glen Canyon provides maintenance and support to numerous smaller infrastructure. Electricity rates would potentially rise to make up for the shortfall. Growing population levels across the region would exacerbate the problems with higher water and electrical demands.

In the face of mounting pressures, the various water user groups are searching for ways to maximize use from the water they do get. In 2012, the United States and Mexico signed a river management agreement. Both countries agreed to share the surpluses and to bear the hardship of shortage years. In a new arrangement, Mexico was permitted to store surplus years’ water behind American dams, north of its border. Also for the first time, both countries committed to sending water downstream to restore the ecology of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. Since the 1960s, numerous years had passed where no water at all reached the sea. This agreement sought to change that. Created to only last five years, the United States and Mexico must re-commit in 2017. Given the current political challenges between the two countries, it will be interesting to follow. Serious ramifications for environmental restoration, not to mention future shortfalls, would be at stake if an agreement isn’t reached.

Conservation advocates have been working hard to preserve and maintain endangered species along the Colorado River while reaching consensus with other water users. Improvements have been made in water conservation in agriculture, and cities are seeking new ways to incentivize water-saving in their citizenry. Bigger changes still will need to take place however, to make up for the expected continuation of reduced flows on the Colorado. Western Resource Advocates promotes five necessary steps for escaping catastrophe. Cities will need to find new ways to conserve and reuse their water. Agriculture will need a continued emphasis on conservation as well. Because agriculture is the largest user of the river, even small improvements here could have big impact. Advances in renewable energy are a must as well. Whether from geothermal, wind, or solar, new ways of producing electricity will be critical as these regions continue to grow in population. And more unusual techniques for “harvesting” water will become necessary. Potentially removing invasive plants along the river could help, as well as groundwater desalinization. While some of these proposals sound far fetched, if water levels in the Colorado continue to drop, they’ll become critical to the continued prosperity of the regions.

Understanding of this complex river ecosystem can be challenging given the vast array of issues at stake. Depending on whether you’re a city planner or a river rafter, the wants and needs may be quite different. Learning more about these wild ecosystems and the human effects on them, we can all hope to reduce our own footprints. As you kayak or raft the lifeblood of the West, or any of its tributaries, pause to wonder at the 21,900 feet per second of water that shoots past you. With nearly every single drop of it accounted for and set aside for use in some fashion, the Colorado is powerful indeed.

For more information about the Colorado River watershed, follow the rest of the series here:


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