Nearly every climate change model puts a red bulls-eye on the Colorado River Basin, suggesting profound temperature increases over the coming decades. It’s going to get much hotter and drier. The future of water—and life—in the West will be very different from anything we’ve come to expect.
-National Geographic News Watch “What Does Climate Change Mean for Water in the Colorado River Basin?” By Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund.
John Wesley Powell, the one-armed civil war veteran who first explored the length of the Grand Canyon in 1869, presaged the view quoted above. Powell, an advocate of conservation and land preservation, cautioned the attendees at an irrigation conference in 1883, “Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”
In my opinion Powell was a prophet. He would deny that, stating that he was simply a scientist reacting to scientific observation and data.
Inaccurate data is where we first got into trouble with the Colorado River. The Colorado River Compact of 1922—an agreement among the states and regions touched by the basin’s waters—divided up the river’s flow between an upper basin, a lower basin, and Mexico. The total allotment of the Colorado River Compact was based on the Reclamation Service’s estimated flow of 17.5 million acre feet per year. After six years of negotiation (and some pressure from Congress), resulting, for instance, in California being granted much more water than either Arizona or Nevada, the compact was ratified and all seemed settled. As Marc Reisner reported in Cadillac Desert, “And it did settle things, temporarily at least, except for one small matter: the average annual flow of the Colorado River was nowhere near 17.5 million acre feet.”
After fourteen dry years, the Colorado River is experiencing the worst drought and the lowest flows in twelve centuries. Lake Mead is reaching forty-five percent capacity. Rationing is eminent. For the first time, in 2014, federal authorities are going to reduce the flow from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. According to the New York Times, “A 100-foot drop (in Lake Powell) would shut down generators that supply enough electricity to power 350,000 homes.” A 100-foot drop in Lake Mead will put the surface below Las Vegas’s highest intake tunnel or “straw.”
The American Rivers Organization recently named the Colorado River the most endangered river in America because of mismanagement. Forty million people rely on the Colorado for their livelihoods. Current demands on the Colorado are not sustainable. Conflict among communities and between states—the sort John Wesley Powell augured—is inevitable.
The Colorado is one of the most dammed and diverted rivers on the planet and yet more dams are planned. And according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study (December 2012) there is not enough water in the Colorado River to meet the basin’s current water demands, let alone to support future demand increases from growing populations in an era of climate change. As is, the mighty Colorado is reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches the Gulf of California in Mexico.
There are two encouraging developments on the lower Colorado. Although there is money available to dam and divert an upper section of the Gila River in New Mexico (the Gila joins the Colorado near Yuma, Arizona) studies are showing that watershed restoration, conservation, agricultural conservation and effluvia treatment can realize as much water as a destructive and invasive dam.
And even during the worst of the drought—and possibly because of cooperation that the drought made unavoidable—Francisco Zamora, who works for the Tucson, Arizona-based Sonoran Institute, and colleagues from several other environmental organizations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, have recently focused their considerable energies on the last one hundred miles of the river. One hundred years ago, wetlands and cottonwood, willow and mesquite forests covered nearly two million acres. It was a bird and birders paradise. Over the last fifty years the river has only occasionally reached the sea. The lower Colorado has been like an animal in a cage slowly strangled by human hands. But every human travesty has its offsetting triumph. The good people working for the delta today have brokered an international deal for the history books that is returning water to the lower stretches of the river. Some communities, named for their proximity to the Colorado, such as San Luis Rio Colorado, are seeing water for the first time in seventeen years.
Gregory Zeigler’s environmental thriller, The Straw That Broke, is a modern allegory addressing critical water issues in the west.