Colorado River Shortage
For years the Colorado River has been a primary source of water for the Western United States. By supplying water for both the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs, this single river has been responsible for providing water to seven states (Arizona, Nevada, California, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico), 30 Native American tribes, and the northernmost states of Mexico. Though the Colorado River has provided much-needed water to these places for years, in the last two decades we have entered a state of crisis where it is essential for us to plan and act to avoid complete disaster.
Where is the Water?
To understand why we are currently facing this water crisis with the Colorado River, it is important to understand where the water supply for the river starts. Like its namesake, the Colorado River starts in Colorado State at the Southern Rocky Mountains. Between 50% and 80% of the water in the Colorado River comes from the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, but due to climate change and the two-decade-long drought, the river basin has been drier than ever and scientists are only expecting conditions to get worse.
Water Loss Isn’t Just Due to Climate Change
While the initial shortage of water in the Colorado River stems from the megadrought and warmer climate that we currently face, our own use and development in the West has also played a large role in the decreasing levels of the reservoirs. Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states that rely on river water that has been overpromised over the years. Due to the inaccurate use of scientific assessments of the Colorado River, development projects were planned the played a part in developing the crisis we currently face.
More Demand Than Supply
The 1922 Colorado River Compact has played a major part in the shortage in the Colorado River. This plan split the river just north of the Grand Canyon, separating the seven states that use the water into the upper basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah and the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California.
What the compact didn’t originally plan for were the other entities that also relied on the water from the Colorado River. The 30 Native American tribes, Mexico, and wildlife were not taken into account when originally allocating water from the river to be used. These missed entities, along with data that was collected during an unusually wet period, set the river supply on a path where demand heavily outweighed the available supply.
The demand for water, along with the megadrought and changing climate, have come together to form conditions that we can only expect to get worse without taking action.
What is Being Done?
The Colorado River shortage is a battle that many are taking measures to alleviate and reverse. Over the last few years, policymakers have implemented temporary drought plans in an effort to combat the crisis that those who rely on the Colorado River face, those these measures are only temporary solutions.
In July of 2021, emergency action was taken to stabilize the water levels of Lake Powell by releasing water from reservoirs upstream. Though this release has helped Lake Powell continue to generate hydropower, it was only a temporary solution to the problem.
As we move into 2022, plans for water cuts that will affect Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico are being drafted. And as groundwater levels in Arizona have also decreased from demand and drought, many fear additional water cuts could be on the horizon affecting residents of the Phoenix area.
Acting Now Prepares Us for Future Success
Failure to plan and act on the data an information that we have now will mean grim consequences for those that rely on the Colorado River. After two dry decades we have seen the effects that the climate and human demand are having on our water supplies, and there is no sign of a weather change in the foreseeable forecast so we must prepare and act to avoid complete disaster.