The mighty Colorado River has been called the backbone of the West for good reason. Nearly 40 million people across seven U.S. states and in Mexico depend on the river for drinking water. Over 5 million acres of farmland are irrigated by the river, which grows virtually all of the U.S.’s winter vegetables. And for wildlife, including 30 endemic fish species and millions of birds, the river is essential for survival.
Tapped to meet the growing demands of western communities, the Colorado River already dries up before reaching its natural outlet to the ocean. But ever-increasing water usage, coupled with drought and climate change, mean that the majestic river’s flow will fall to even more dangerously low levels—if we don’t change the way we use water.
The number of people who rely on the Colorado River is projected to double by 2060, meaning a lot more faucets, and the potential for many more thirsty lawns. Cities and towns use about 15 percent of the Colorado River’s supply, and are the primary drivers of increasing water withdrawals from the river. Like the rest of the country, many homes and businesses are still relying on wasteful fixtures and appliances, water-hogging landscaping, and leaky infrastructure.
Agriculture uses more than 70 percent of the Colorado River’s supply—but farms are not expanding nor increasing the demand for more water. Some farmers are put in a tough spot by growing cities looking to buy up water rights to supply their growth, resulting in farms being put out of production. While there are solutions such as better tools for sharing water between cities and farms, and making irrigation more efficient, the problem is very complex. Entrenched policies and attitudes about water (e.g., “use or lose it” laws, and the old refrain “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over”) are tough barriers that need to be. (Learn more in our report.)
- Climate Change
The communities of the West and Southwest are no strangers to drought. But climate change is making a bad problem a whole lot worse. According to the World Economic Forum, the West will be 9.5°F warmer if global carbon emissions are not reduced. Higher temperatures mean that not only does water from the river and reservoirs evaporate faster, but plants and animals will use more water too.
If the complex, large-scale crisis that is climate change makes you want to hide under the covers, you’re not alone. No one can do everything, but we can all do something. If you support clean energy, for example—whether by choosing clean energy through your utility or installing your own solar panels—you’ll be helping the mighty Colorado River too.
- Poor Planning and Management
When the Colorado River’s water was divided up in 1922 among seven states, the amount of water available was grossly overestimated. As a result, there simply isn’t enough water to go around. As populations grow and states edge closer to using up their full share of water, areas in the lower reaches of the Colorado River could soon see their water supplies cut.
Despite these challenges, we’re still mostly relying on old approaches to managing water. When we need more, many water decision-makers turn to constructing new dams and diversions, rather than using newer tools that maximize existing water supplies. New ways to conserve, share, and reuse water—such as fixing leaky pipes and implementing advanced water reuse technologies—are more cost-effective than big dams and diversions, and leave more water in the Colorado River and its tributaries.