The Colorado River has long been regarded as the “lifeline of the Southwest.” It supplies water to 40 million people in seven states, 29 Native American tribes and parts of Mexico. Farmers use it to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of agricultural land. One hundred years ago this month, the signing of the Colorado River Compact laid the foundation for how water from the river is used today.
In their pleas to Western states to cut back on water use from the Colorado River Basin, federal officials are keenly focused on keeping Lake Powell’s elevation at 3,490 feet — the minimum needed to keep hydropower humming at Glen Canyon Dam.
But if federal efforts can’t stop the reservoir from shrinking to new lows — its elevation is 3,536 feet as of Monday — the lights going out might not even be the worst problem.
Good morning. I’m Ian James, water reporter for The Times, filling in for Sammy Roth, who will be back next week.
It’s crunch time for the Colorado River. The river’s badly depleted reservoirs keep dropping, and the federal government has announced that major water cutbacks need to happen soon to prevent supplies from reaching perilously low levels.
The Colorado River is approaching a breaking point, its reservoirs depleted and western states under pressure to drastically cut water use.
It’s a crisis that scientists have long warned was coming. Years before the current shortage, scientists repeatedly alerted public officials who manage water supplies that the chronic overuse of the river combined with the effects of climate change would likely drain the Colorado’s reservoirs to dangerously low levels.
With the Colorado River’s depleted reservoirs continuing to drop to new lows, the federal government has taken the unprecedented step of telling the seven Western states that rely on the river to find ways of drastically cutting the amount of water they take in the next two months.
The Interior Department is seeking the emergency cuts to reduce the risks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, declining to dangerously low levels next year.
The way the story goes, the one Fort Collins resident Aaron Million first told more than a decade ago, the whole thing started with one of those ah-ha moments, a split-second grasp of some sliver of grand opportunity.
Million, who in the mid-2000s, was pursuing a master’s degree in agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University, was holed up in the library on a Sunday night. At some point, Million’s attention wandered to a collection of early 1900s Colorado state maps. Million fixated on a 41-mile stretch of the Green River that briefly swerves in and out of the Northwest corner of the state.
One hundred years after a landmark agreement divided the waters of the Colorado River among Western states, the pact is now showing its age as a hotter and drier climate has shrunk the river.
The flow of the Colorado has declined nearly 20% since 2000. Reservoirs have dropped to record low levels.