Running on Empty? The Colorado River in Crisis

Apr 18, 2017 | Environment & Energy


A combination of environmental issues, states’ authority, and individual water rights linger over the future of the Colorado River. Recently, The Denver Post published an article that called on the incoming Trump administration to protect the Colorado River basin, which said that the country is extremely close to experiencing its first water shortage declaration. To better prepare contingency plans for drought and put water savings plans into place, The Post calls on federal assistance to help secure the future of this vital water supply.

Years of drought affecting the Western states have had a major impact on the river’s water supply, as well as the major water reserves that it stocks. States have difficulty in rolling back water usage as well, as many states continue to count the actual river water as a separate entity from the groundwater reserves, essentially double-counting the available water for use. As the population is set to continue its growth in the major western cities, is there a way federal and state governments work to improve the life of this vital river?

Problems facing the Colorado River

At 1,450 miles, the Colorado River supplies water to nearly 40 million people and traverses the landscape of seven Western states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Nearly 70 percent of the residents of these states rely on the Colorado River for their water supply. This is all in addition to supporting 15 percent of the nation’s food supply and filling two of its largest water reserves, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the most recent conditions place each of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River in some level of drought that ranges from abnormally dry to ‘exceptional drought.’ Of these states, five are ranked among the top three worst categories for drought. In California, 93 percent of the state has been experiencing severe drought conditions, along with 86 percent of Nevada, 34 percent of Utah, 29 percent of Arizona, and 11 percent of New Mexico. Through its outlook for the first quarter of 2017, the Drought Monitor expects the drought to persist for nearly all of Southern California, large swaths of Arizona and large parts of Nevada — as well as a large stretch of the southern Midwest and southeastern United States.

As the Western states have experienced years of drought and dwindling water supplies, many state governments have allowed businesses and individuals to tap into groundwater sources. According to an article published by ProPublica in July 2015, nearly 60 percent of California’s water comes from underground, and nearly half of Arizona’s water supply is pumped from aquifers. However, these two sources of water are linked and drawing water from one will most surely result in the eradication of the other.

The use of river water for other purposes in the West is a major factor that is contributing to the dwindling resources. As National Geographic reports, agriculture consumes 78 percent of the Colorado River’s water while municipalities and industry use the remaining 22 percent via diverted aqueducts and pipelines.  Many of the crops require water that is diverted from the river itself or drawn from groundwater sources. States like California grow water-intensive crops like almonds and rice, while Arizona’s continued growth of cotton typically requires 60 percent more water to grow than is required to harvest wheat.

Expected population growth links these separate issues and brings this problem to the policy forefront. In the Las Vegas, Nevada and northern Arizona area population is expected to grow nearly 25 percent from 2020 to 2030, and surrounding areas in southern Utah and northern Arizona are expected to grow between 15 to 25 percent over the same period of time. ProPublica expects the population in the Denver metropolitan area to grow by 56 percent within the next 25 years, which would bring its population to nearly 4 million by 2030. As these major population centers continue to grow, their reliance on the Colorado River to meet demands will further exacerbate the declining water levels.

Governing the Colorado River 

Historically, claims to river and water rights in the United States fall under two systems: either (1) riparian water rights or (2) appropriation rights. In the West, appropriation water rights are much more common and were put in place to protect the first settlers who laid claim to river water from any latecomers. This priority exists during times of shortage, and appropriators (those using water diverted from the river) are only able to use the water that is needed, which means excess must be returned to the source. In other words, use it or lose it.

To complicate matters, Western states are currently operating at a water deficit, in that there is an over-allocation of river water. This problem began in the 1920s, when water was divvied up between the Colorado River states to keep any one populous state from taking complete ownership. However, this was done by calculating the flow based on an abnormally wet year, with an 18 million acre-feet river flow with nearly 4.8 trillion gallons of water. Within a few years, the river had only a 12 million acre-feet flow, but this did not stop the breakdown of river water among the several states. In 2015, Scientific American reported that 16.5 million acre-feet of water flow had been allocated among the states, yet the river had been flowing at a rate of 12.4 million acre-feet per year.

Why is the over-allocation continuing to plague Western states? Water politics in the West have taken on a ‘third rail’ aspect, in that changing the status quo is politically risky and therefore not always viable. For example, two of the states shown to be suffering from severe drought conditions — California and Arizona — still continue to count groundwater resources as separate from the river resources, which essentially double-counts the water available for use. In California, while recent legislation did begin to regulate the withdrawal of groundwater it did not address the interconnection between groundwater and surface water. In fact, the legislation prevents state regulators from addressing the interconnection between both sources of water for local plans until 2025.

What happens next?

As the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, oversees the Bureau of Reclamation and US Geological Survey, both of which enforce federal laws over the Colorado River. As a Congressman, Zinke was a supporter of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and while he has advocated for a review of “job-killing regulations” he does support infrastructure improvements for the National Park Service. To many, Zinke’s opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and his stance on climate change is troubling and may not help in the long run to improve conditions with the Colorado River.

There is a potential for federal action here. Since states have tied their own hands when it comes to addressing the relationship between groundwater and river water, management at the federal level could tackle this challenge. New management at the federal level could direct conservation efforts; for example, farmers can be incentivized to grow alternative crops that require less water for growth through subsidies dispersed at the federal level. Federal agencies can also consistently measure water flow and issue guidance to direct state agencies to use this data in their allocation of resources.

In a recent letter to the new Secretary, Latino leaders from Western states requested his leadership on three key priorities related to the Colorado River. They included working with Governors to balance the water levels in the lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada), collaborating with the Mexican Ambassador to ensure the continuation of adequate water levels in Lake Mead to support water for their shared environment, and using market-based tools and collaborative solutions to ensure the water supply. During his confirmation hearing, Zinke alluded to the collaboration between his department and the basin states, and the U.S. already has an agreement with Mexico to ensure water levels.

In addition to these recommendations, Congress could push legislation to clearly define the linkage between groundwater and river water to prevent double counting and find a balance to the ‘use it or lose it’ problem that comes with appropriation rights, perhaps through a regulated market system to sell access to unused resources. Major cities and urban areas could be directed to come up with their own conservation plans and require businesses within their jurisdiction to implement conservation efforts for industries that use plenty of water. Good performers can be incentivized to continue their trend and serve as a model for industries struggling to adapt.

While these major problems continue to hinder the flow of the Colorado River, they highlight the need for combined local, state and federal solutions to solve the problem. Through efforts to recognize the link between surface and groundwater, like in California, and hearings at the federal level to address the entire western water system, conservation and modernization efforts can begin to take root and bring life back to the Colorado River.

Image Source: Shutterstock.