Protecting the Colorado River Through Smarter Water Management Throughout the West

Bart Miller“The good news is that there is a realistic solution to Colorado River challenges. Water conservation in cities and farms is the cheapest and quickest way to bring balance to the Colorado River so we all can thrive.”

– Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers Program Director

The Colorado River is the Lifeline Sustaining Our Western Communities, Environment, and Economy

The Colorado River provides drinking water to over 36 million people, irrigates over 4 million acres of farmland, supports a $26 billion water-based recreation economy, and sustains 30 endemic fish species and the remaining riparian habitat of the Pacific Flyway.

The Colorado River Basin is the Colorado River and all the rivers and streams that feed the Colorado River. The Colorado River provides water to communities in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. Human demands on the River have grown over time and now surpass what the river basin naturally provides, threatening the Colorado River Basin’s fish and wildlife, recreational opportunities and the large western economy dependent on recreation. Population growth means that human demands will likely continue to grow. Climate change impacts will only add to the pressure on the River and the life it supports. The many threats the Colorado River faces led American Rivers to designate the Colorado River as “America’s Most Endangered River” in April 2013.

Over-allocation of water from the River by water managers in western states has depleted Lake Mead, a reservoir on the River, to levels not seen since Hoover Dam was completed. Lake Mead and Lake Powell supply hydroelectric power to millions of people, but have decreased power production due to lower levels of water flowing in from the Colorado River. Due to high water demands, the Colorado River no longer regularly reaches the sea and is at even further risk of drying up due to chronic drought and rapid population growth.

The economic and environmental damage of draining the Colorado River dry is unacceptable. Millions of people rely on the River for drinking water, agriculture, quality of life, and future economic growth.

Through Common-Sense, Cost-Effective Measures, Colorado River Wildlife, Communities, Agriculture and Recreation Can Still Thrive

Changing the way the West uses water from the Colorado River is crucial. Water conservation, water reuse, and other cost-effective and innovative solutions could avoid impending water shortages stemming from the over-taxed and stressed Colorado River. The Hardest Working River in the West: Common-Sense Solutions for a Reliable Water Future for the Colorado River Basin report , a report put together by Western Resource Advocates and American Rivers, defines five cost-effective and clearly defined solutions that, if implemented at a larger scale across the basin, could meet the water needs of the West’s businesses, agriculture, and growing population through 2060.

In addition to being cost-effective, these steps are faster and resolve water challenges better and cheaper than dams or taking more water from the River. The five solutions in the report protect the West’s recreational economy; are flexible enough to meet water requests in high-snowpack, rainy or drought years; and protect the Colorado River for future generations. Each of these solutions has been tested and proven effective.

The five critical steps for solving our current and future water shortages are:

  1. Expanding municipal water conservation, saving 1 million acre-feet of water through such efforts as improved landscaping techniques and rebate programs for residents that incentivize installation of water-saving appliances and other devices. For more visit our Water Conservation &Efficiency web page.
  2. Increasing municipal water reuse, saving 1.2 million acre-feet of water through treating used water and re-using it for irrigating crops, industrial uses and other purposes. For more visit our Water Reuse web page.
  3. Improving agricultural water efficiency and water banking, saving 1 million acre-feet via voluntary, compensated improvements in irrigation efficiency and technology, crop shifting, and other measures (while avoiding permanently taking agricultural lands out of production).
  4. Escalating renewable energy, saving 160,000 acre-feet of water. Wind, solar PV, and geothermal energy solutions, and new water-efficient thermoelectric power plants, use less water to produce energy than nuclear power, coal and other fossil fuel power plants. For more visit our Energy and Water Nexus web page.
  5. Implementing innovative water saving opportunities, generating up to 1.1 million acre-feet through creative measures such as removing invasive plants along the Colorado River that use more water, reducing dust that lands on snow and increases water evaporation, and targeted desalinization of inland groundwater.
Shortage Infographic6

Western Resource Advocates Works to Protect the Colorado River and Ensure There Is Water for Western Users

Western Resource Advocates’ Colorado River efforts educate our leaders and the public about Colorado River management and provide pro-active solutions so that all water users can flourish. Western Resource Advocates:

    • Promotes water efficiency and municipal conservation to ensure we have water for our homes, communities, industries, agriculture, recreation and wildlife;
    • Helps minimize the water footprint of new development of homes and buildings, helping new development “do more with less”;
    • Improves water utility infrastructure and irrigation management to stop water waste; and
    • Protects natural stream flows that feed the Colorado River so future generations may enjoy the rivers and streams as we do today.


Healthy Rivers Program

Colorado River Basin


Related Publication



Related Blog Post

Arizona’s Water Warning Light Is On

Opinion Editorial in Arizona Republic by Jon Goldin-Dubois


Read More


Related News Stories

  • USA Today
    Lake Mead sinks to record low, risking water shortage
  • Time Magazine
    Lake Mead Reservoir Hits Record Low


Drew Beckwith

Drew Beckwith

Water Policy Manager

Jorge Figueroa

Jorge Figueroa

Senior Water Policy Analyst

Bart Miller

Bart Miller

Healthy Rivers Program Director

Amelia-Nuding Staff Photo

Amelia Nuding

Senior Water Resources Analyst