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Why is the Colorado River Threatened by a Water Crisis?

Why is the Colorado River suffering from a water crisis? Is global warming impacting the Colorado river and other bodies of water in unexpected ways?
Ecology News
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The Colorado River runs across the southwestern part of the United States, spanning across five states – and its continued depleting source of water due to incessant droughts caused by climate change is proving catastrophic for those who depend on it. 

Why is the Colorado River suffering from a water crisis? Is there anything that can be done to save it?

What is the Colorado River?

The Colorado River initially formed alongside the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, specifically in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park – the Colorado River, once known as the Grand,  spans across the Southwestern part of the United States. The Colorado River covers a whopping 1,450-mile-long distance, and many depend on it as a source to collect water and supply it to seven states of the U.S., and even two states in Mexico. 

Did you know that 1.9 trillion gallons of water is used from the Colorado River each year? The majority of this water from the Colorado River is used for agricultural purposes.

A watershed is an area of land that collects freshwater from rainfall and melting snow and disperses them into creeks, streams, and rivers – like the Colorado River – and sends them into other bodies of water. 

Watersheds are important because they provide crucial necessities like drinkable clean water, improve the productivity of fisheries, support the economy as an essential resource, and ultimately – improve the environment, biodiversity, and overall quality of all forms of Earthly life. 

After all – the human body is nearly 60% water, and without it – no life on Earth could survive. In addition to this, Americans are known to eat large amounts of beef and dairy – both of which take up a massive amount of water to produce and further deplete the sparse water available in the Colorado River.

The Colorado River cuts through some of the United States, and the world’s, most well known landscapes: including the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but also various other deserts and mesas. However, much of the Colorado River is dried up due to urbanization and agriculture demands. 

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Why is the Colorado River important?

California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and two states of Mexico rely on the Colorado River as a water resource – making it an imperative ecological and economic resource to the states surrounding the river.

The Colorado River is known to supply water for irrigation systems related to agriculture, supply public spaces with water, and even aid in the production of electricity. 

The Colorado River provides over 40 million people in the U.S. and Mexico with the water necessary for billions of dollars worth of agricultural activity, but climate change has made its once lucrative state difficult to sustain.

For example, two of the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, only have 28% of the water capacity they used to have due to the Colorado River’s decreased flow of water and increase in demand due to growing populations, which require more industrialization, urbanization, and agricultural activity to produce edible crops – which all require higher amounts of water. 

Without the Colorado River, these U.S. and Mexican states could experience a backlog of productivity in progressing the already growing population and necessity for usable water in their communities. The Colorado River not only provides irrigation for 5.5 million acres of land used to harvest crops, but it also helps to create billions of kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power. 

Clearly, if the Colorado River is to suffer more than it already has – the effects could prove deleterious the Southwestern region of the United States as well as parts of Northern Mexico. 

What is happening to the Colorado River?

Climate change is undoubtedly taking a toll on the Colorado River after years of incessant droughts have come close to diminishing its flow entirely.

In efforts to mitigate this negative effect, the seven states in the U.S. that rely on the Colorado River are expected to take part in reducing their water use from the Colorado River – by reducing their usage up to a quarter of what they usually do. 

Imagine having to pay all of your same bills, and still have enough money leftover to save and spend frivolously – with a quarter less of your monthly salary. That’s not as easy as you might think it would be, until it happens to you. 

States have proven this true. As a result, the seven states were required to find a middle ground on how much water each state should refrain from using. This means that the federal government may have to get involved in order to ensure that the Colorado River is preserved so that it doesn’t get to the point where it dries out completely. 

However, as of April 2023 – Biden is officially getting involved in the Colorado River Crisis and will make the tough cuts that the seven states have previously been unable to agree on. If the Biden administration doesn't act quick enough, the Colorado River could stop flowing all together – something that nobody would benefit from happening. This is also known as "deadpool" – when a river stops flowing or functioning entirely.

The Colorado River has weathered through droughts before, but this is different. As global temperatures continue to rise throughout the next century, natural disasters and bizarre weather patterns, like the extreme heat waves we have experienced this summer – are likely to continue to occur at an even more intense rate. 

In other words, the summers will keep getting hotter for longer periods of time – meaning imperative bodies of water, like the Colorado River, could be up against a fight with climate change that they aren’t equipped to survive. 

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Is global warming having this effect on other bodies of water?

The Colorado River and other important bodies of water have suffered due to droughts of the past, but global warming is making it even more difficult for them to survive sparse periods of rainfall. The water levels for the lakes associated with the Colorado River could suffer as well. 

As explained before, the world’s only expected to get hotter at an unprecedented rate as long as carbon emissions continue to rise at the rate that they are. For bodies like the Colorado River, which are extremely sensitive to high temperatures, the water supply could be provoked to decrease more than it would have otherwise. 

As a result, up to a third of the water provided by the Colorado River could be manifested into a real shortage for the next generation unless more businesses and individuals around the world implement serious measures to curb their carbon footprint. 

In short, global warming isn’t the sole cause for the crisis associated with the Colorado River – but rising temperatures and extreme heats preventing substantial rainfall and a copious supply of fresh drinking water for irrigation purposes doesn’t make it any easier. 

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Is there a way to save the Colorado River?

It’s simple: there need to be regulations on how much water is used from the Colorado River if the states that depend on them don’t want it to disappear completely. 

For example, Arizona, a state with partial rights to conduct the usage of the Colorado River, has been extensively planning for how to mitigate the depletion of the river for years now. 

In short, the quickest way to reduce the usage from the Colorado River would be to make cuts in agriculture, but it won’t be easy for farmers to adjust. Therefore, it would be easier if the citizens of each state could make their efforts to reduce the amount of water they use: in showers, laundry machines, and public facilities

However, as urbanization continues to happen – these water cuts aren’t feasible to most states, and don’t end up happening. 

In short, the responsibility of who should make the most drastic cuts to their water usage ends up in a never-ending loop of who should take the first step – but no party ever does so because it’s too difficult of a task. 

The water cuts are going to have to become compulsory, and permanent if they’re going to preserve what’s left of the Colorado River. How can the states agree upon these regulations?

Newsflash: as of April 2023, they can't – and Biden is planning to cut even more water supply from each state than previously agreed upon by the seven states in order to prevent the Colorado River from shutting down altogether. However, it would still be preferred if the seven states could come to an agreement on the Colorado River so that the federal government doesn't have to make the cuts – but that remains unlikely seeing as each state continues to view the cuts differently.

The outlook for the Colorado River is overwhelming. But what our future looks like is still our choice. We can, and should, choose to pursue a just transition to a basin with significantly less water. While in no way comprehensive, below are three ways to get started on that path.

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1. Recognizing the unsustainable reality of water usage

First of all, it’s important that these states recognize the unsustainable reality of their water usage. Basically, it’s time to accept the harsh realities: urbanization in these states isn’t a viable opportunity at the moment, and if their populations continue to increase – then harsh restrictions on water will have to prevail. 

Supply and demand have to be taken into consideration regarding the Colorado River, and the new regulations need to constantly be adjusted according to the predictions in climate change. In other words, if there is an exceptionally dry summer – then water cuts should be even more drastic as an attempt to counteract the negative effects of a summer with little rainfall. 

We have to get better at doing more with less. There isn’t going to be more water to work with, so we have to plan strategically. 

2. Addressing inequalities that have gone unnoticed

Second, we have to address any inequalities that have gone unnoticed for quite some time. Transparency regarding which sectors are actually following the new protocols for cutting their water usage from the Colorado River needs to increase.

If this isn’t done, any future data will prove itself futile, as no one will ever truly know how much water is left in the Colorado River watershed. 

The efforts to save the Colorado River have to be a collective effort. Long gone need to be the days of privatization and money ruling all; fiscal power can’t assert any dominance over who gets how much water from the Colorado River. Everyone, rich or poor, needs to be held accountable for the amount of water they are using from the river. 

3. Supporting communities in transitioning

Third, using a whole-portfolio method to utilize the innovative ways we can support communities in transitioning to the actions necessary to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change could prove useful. As explained before, the battle to save the Colorado River has to be a collaborative one

If each state can find its own way to unify its people in the fight to save the river and the environment as a whole, then the incentive to preserve water will be intrinsic – and everyone will be much more likely to succeed. 

Climate change isn’t going away. Even if we all play our part to reduce the already existing effects of rising global temperatures, the truth is – they’re already here, and this is being shown in the Colorado River. 

It’s not going to be easy, but nothing in life ever is. What’s important to remember is that hard work will reap glorious benefits, and if the states associated with the Colorado River could instill this motto into their water regulations – all those that rely on the river just might prove this infamous phrase true. 

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What about Greenly? 

If reading this article about the Colorado river crisis has made you interested in reducing your carbon emission to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

Greenly can help you make an environmental change for the better, starting with a carbon footprint assessment to know how much carbon emissions your company produces.

Click here to learn more about Greenly and how we can help you reduce your carbon footprint. 

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