Going, Going, Gone? Reservoirs for Colorado River Reach Record Lows

Same old same old: Farms and cities over tap the seven-state river basin and climate change dries up what's left.

This is a satellite image showing the East and West Loops of the Colorado River, Utah, United States collected on April 22, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Jul 26, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

It was 92 years ago this week that the 1,450 mile long Grand River, which then flowed from high in the Rocky Mountains to Mexico’s Gulf of California, was renamed the Colorado.

Despite its continued grandeur—from high above, the blue-black river snakes beautifully through the West’s most iconographic landscapes—it is tricky to think of the river as Grand.

First off, it no longer reaches the sea, but dries up about 100 miles from the coast. And this summer the reservoirs the river feeds, Lakes Powell and Mead, will record all time lows since they were created in 1963.

What’s happened to the Grand/Colorado River in the past fifty years is emblematic of how we’ve treated rivers across the country—and around the world. We’ve over-tapped them for agricultural and urban use, ignored that they were suffering from the impacts of a warming planet too, and turned what were once lifeblood for states and communities into shadows.

What happens today to the Colorado impacts residents of seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming). Its basin supplies irrigation for 15 percent of the U.S.’s crops and supports more than 33 million people, including providing drinking water for many.

That we have somehow mis-managed this river network, draining this lifeline speaks volumes about our disregard for Mother Nature. Going back to the turn of the twentieth century, major engineering projects—mostly giant hydro dams—turned it into the most controlled and fought over water delivery system in the world. High demand from farmers and industry sucked the life out of parts of the river, today endangering its ability to create power and provide water.

The Nature Conservancy has stepped up to try and educate about risks to the river. To its credit, this week, July 25, Whole Foods in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico gave five percent of its net sales to efforts to protect the river.

The Sonoran Institute, with offices in three states and Mexico, has plans for restoring the Colorado’s delta. Water managers from the seven impacted states are stepping up to try and agree on solutions to protecting the river and its $26 billion a year recreation economy, providing roughly 250,000 jobs.

Today the river’s storage units, Lakes Powell and Mead, are surrounded by bathtub rings rising up the desert walls, down 55 percent from capacity, at the lowest since 1968. The problem downstream is that the reservoirs are releasing twice as much water annually as they take in from the Colorado above, which will eventually have powerful impacts on both farmers and cities that depend on the flow.

Conservation is the key to keeping the Colorado alive and plentiful. But predictions are, according to studies by the Department of Interior, it’s only going to get worse over the next 50 years.

Man’s demands are part of the problem; human population of the West continues to grow, thus so does demand on natural resources. Climate change is a culprit too; more heat and less rainfall contribute to the river’s shrinking. Severe drought in the West during the past decade has greatly encouraged those record low flows.

Today everyone who depends on the river is searching for solutions, from federal, state and local water managers to environmental groups and Native American tribes.

But the simple truth is if we continue in our consumptive ways, without sizable change in how much water we drain from the Colorado River each year, nothing will change and in another half-century we’ll be looking for another name for what used to be the Grand River.

Maybe that will be its new name: Once Was The Grand River.