The Colorado River Crisis

A closer look into how the Colorado River became endangered

Every year, American Rivers issues a report naming the most endangered rivers in the country. With its name all over headlines recently, it’s no surprise the Colorado River is at the top of the list this year.

Facts about the Colorado River
The Colorado River is 1,450 miles long. Starting at its headwaters in Wyoming and Colorado, it flows through six states before eventually crossing the border into Mexico. This river provides drinking water to 40 million people, including areas outside the basin like Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Thirty federally recognized Tribal Nations rely on the river for drinking water and are being impacted by this crisis. Also threatened is vital habitat for wildlife, as the Basin is home to 30 native fish species, two-thirds of which are threatened or endangered, and more than 400 bird species. The river also irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland and almost 90% of our nation’s winter vegetable crops. (American Rivers)

To say that the effects of this crisis are substantial would be an understatement.

The Colorado River Crisis
Matt Rice, director of American Rivers, attributes the state of the Colorado River crisis to outdated river management, overallocation, and the effects of climate change.

The Colorado River watershed, much like the rest of the western U.S., relies on snowpack in the mountains to melt and feed water to communities through this river. However, as climate change progresses, temperatures in this area warm, and that has lasting effects on the availability of water in this region. Over 65% of the Colorado River Basin is in a severe drought (  Additionally, even in years where there is average or above average snowpack, the availability of river water is low as high temperatures have caused soil to dry out.

Management of the Colorado River is based on an agreement that was ratified 100 years ago. Although it was seen as an accomplishment at the time, the Colorado River Compact bases the allocation of the Colorado River water on an estimated amount of water that is much higher than the river we have today. The river’s flow has decreased by 20% in the last 20 years and is expected to decrease by another 10 to 30 percent by 2050. Even so, the Compact distributes water rights to users based on an outdated estimate, essentially allocating water that does not exist.

This problem will progress as urban areas in the American southwest continue to grow. While population growth is an issue not unique to this region, it does pose a special threat to this river considering that overallocation has been happening for many years.

How to Help the Colorado River
Since the cause of this crisis is multi-faceted, its solution must be too. There is not one easy way to help solve this crisis. American Rivers director cited climate resilience, watershed health, conservation, and infrastructure as just some of the ways to help this river get back to a healthy state.

At Project WET, we believe that education provides an essential foundation to taking further measures. It is vital to build awareness and understanding about the obstacles facing the Colorado River watershed. Knowledge like this is essential for anyone who relies on this river, so they are prepared to make informed decisions in their communities.

If you are interested in learning or teaching about the Colorado River, you can now check out our Colorado River Bundle on the Project WET store.

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