Imagine a world where the nation’s two largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – are essentially empty. Lake Powell is so low that it can no longer generate hydropower, and it doesn’t consistently release water into the Grand Canyon. Lake Mead has some water in it, for now, but without reliable inflows from Lake Powell, the millions of people and farms that rely on water from Lake Mead are facing an uncertain and scary future. Smaller Upper Basin reservoirs like the Flaming Gorge in Utah, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Navajo in New Mexico are already empty, their last drops having been sent down to desperately try to save Lake Powell.
An ecological crisis from a river no more. The system has crashed.
For many years, this was the apocalyptic storyline that seemed like a science fiction account of a dystopian future. But it is exactly the scenario experts have warned about. And rather than being many years, if not decades, down the road, the possibility that the Colorado River system crashes has now become a likely reality – within the next year.
The Colorado River is essential for the lives and livelihoods of communities across the West, and it is in crisis. As scientists predicted decades ago, the Colorado River Basin is getting hotter and drier due to climate change, and the result is less water in rivers and less water available for people, wildlife, and the environment.
The impacts of climate-driven warming and drying in the Colorado River Basin extend far beyond worsening river health and reduced water supplies. In Utah, the Great Salt Lake continues its plunge to record lows, exposing more of the lakebed and increasing the risk of airborne toxic dust harming the health of nearby residents. Catastrophic wildfires worsened by climate change are imperiling wildlife habitat, choking Western rivers with debris, and damaging watersheds.
A once-in-a-generation opportunity
The challenges posed by aridification in the Colorado River Basin are gargantuan, yet we know what we have to do: We have to use less water and fundamentally change how our region values, manages, and stewards this mighty waterway in the era of climate change.
For the past century the Colorado River has been divvied up and governed by agreements that, from their inception, promised more water on paper than would be physically available. As climate change rapidly reduces the river’s flows even further, the basin must urgently come together around solutions that rebalance the system. We no longer have the luxury of time.
WRA has worked for more than 30 years to protect the Colorado River and build up communities’ resilience to climate change. In Colorado and Utah, we helped develop the first-ever statewide lawn replacement programs, which will help conserve vast amounts of water. We’ve provided on-the-ground support to dozens of municipalities to help them grow water-smart from the start, thereby decreasing pressure on rivers. We continue to push back against large proposed water projects, such as the Lake Powell Pipeline, when there are better ways to meet new demands. And in line with our work to reduce power sector carbon emissions – a key driver of climate change – we are working to reallocate retiring coal plants’ water rights in new, innovative ways that restore flows in stressed rivers.
And now, as the basin approaches the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact, key water decision makers will convene over the upcoming months and years to renegotiate the current guidelines for managing the river, which expire in 2026. These negotiations are a once-in-a-generation opportunity for state and federal leaders, Indigenous nations, water users, and key stakeholders to address the systemic issues impacting the river and plan for a future with significantly less water.
WRA is committed to seeing the basin reach an equitable and sustainable agreement by advocating for water-conscious and cost-effective solutions. We will push for the updated guidelines to incorporate modern interests and values – including river health and authentic participation by sovereign tribal nations – to ensure a more flexible, adaptable, and fair system that enables the region to live within its means.