The Colorado River is often called The Lifeline of the Southwest. 40 million people rely on it. It supports a $1.7 trillion economy. And it is quickly drying up. So let’s start 2022 with a look at the Colorado River. What’s causing this to happen? What’s being done about it? And just how bad is it going to get if nothing changes?
Happy New Year everyone, it’s 2022, I hope you’re off to a great start, and I hope this new year brings you all the success and happiness you can possibly handle.
One way that many Arizona farmers have started off this year is by losing their crops because of mandatory water restrictions, essentially making them a canary in the coalmine in a massive ecological disaster. (blink/SFX)
Come on, you got like 10 seconds of happiness there, what else did you expect?
Lake Mead, which straddles Arizona and Nevada and provides water and power for millions of people, is currently only 35% full. It’s literally the lowest the lake has ever been since the Hoover Dam was built in 1931.
It’s been going down for a while, but just a few months ago in August of 2021, the federal government officially declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time ever.
And with that came restrictions for Arizona farmers that would take effect in January 2022, which would be right about… (look at watch) Now.
But there’s a reason for all this concern. The Colorado River is dying. Fast. And if nothing is done, it could be the beginning of an environmental disaster that would permanently reshape a large swath of the United States.
There’s a lot of things in life that are profoundly important to us but we spend insanely little time thinking about. In so many ways we’re just utterly spoiled by our modern conveniences.
Things like where our electricity is generated, where our trash goes, how the microwave works, and where our water comes from.
Because we don’t see the full life cycle of the resources we consume, we remain blissfully ignorant of it. Until we don’t have it anymore.
And that’s when little things happen like, you know… society collapsing.
Which is why the water shortage declaration is a big deal. It’s effectively changed the official policy from one of, “Eh, maybe something’ll happen,” to one of “…okay, we need to make something happen.”
The declaration will reduce Arizona’s supply of water from the Colorado River by around 20 percent, or 512,000 acre-feet.
By the way, an acre-foot is around 1,230,259 liters (325,000 gallons), which is enough water for two or three homes a year.
Reductions are mandated for Arizona, Nevada, and also parts of Mexico, but what this means for the farmers in Arizona is that many in places like Pinal County are planning on leaving some of their fields dry and unplanted.
And that could happen if Lake Mead’s level declines to 320 meters (1,050 feet) above sea level, which would prompt even more restrictions.
According to Jennifer Pitt of the National Audubon Society, “As this inexorable-seeming decline in the supply continues, the shortages that we’re beginning to see implemented are only going to increase,” “Once we’re on that train, it’s not clear where it stops.”
These are drastic measures that will financially impact thousands of farmers, but around 25 million people rely on Lake Mead for their water supply across Arizona, California, Mexico, and Nevada.
Overall, the Colorado River provides water for 40 million Americans. That’s more than 12% of the entire US population.
What happens to the Colorado affects almost every major western U.S. city, thirty Native American tribes, 5.5 million acres of farmland, and northern Mexico.
The river’s flow has declined by about 20 percent over the last century, according to a 2020 U.S. Geological Survey study.
And more than half of that decline is due to warming temperatures across the basin.
The study also found that without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it could go down by 31 percent by 2050.
This is a climate crisis playing out in real time. So, how did we get here? And what can be done?
You know how you guys are always begging me to do more videos about river systems and the minutia of interstate water compacts, well your day has come my friend!
The Colorado River is a massive system of rivers and tributaries that flows through seven states across 2,300 kilometers (1,448 miles) before ending in the Gulf of California (or the Sea of Cortez).
It plays such a significant role in the region it’s sometimes called the “Lifeline of the Southwest.”
The river begins at La Poudre Pass in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado at 10,184 feet above sea level where it’s fed by melting snow in the mountains.
Unsurprisingly it’s very close to the continental divide. Rivers to the west flow toward the Pacific, those in the east flow toward the atlantic.
From its headwaters, it flows south and feeds Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake, and Lake Granby. Then cuts across western Colorado through Grand Junction before it enters Utah and starts carving up the southwest, through Arches National Park, Moab, The canyonlands, Glen Canyon, before collecting into Lake Powell.
From there it goes on to form Marble Canyon before the mother of them all, the Grand Canyon, shortly after that it forms Lake Mead, passes through the Hoover Dam, and flows south, eventually feeding Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu.
It then continues flowing south, creating the border between Arizona and California, before it enters Mexico at Yuma and eventually ends its journey at the Gulf of California.
This river not only has created and shaped some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, it crosses a wide range of natural environments and ecosystems.
Alpine tundra at its headwaters through semiarid plateaus and canyons to arid deserts in the lower basin.
It’s one of the most heavily developed rivers in the world, and that’s nothing new, it’s provided water for people and agriculture for thousands of years.
The Ute and Southern Paiute Indian tribes hunted and gathered in the plateaus and canyonlands and the Hohokam Indians in the lower basin built the largest prehistoric irrigation system in western America on the Gila and Salt rivers.
It’s also gone by many names over the years.
Various Native American tribes called it Tomichi, Nah-Un-Kah-Rea, or Akanaquint.
Spanish explorers in the 16th century called it Rio del Tizon, which translates to River of Embers or Firebrand River.
Some maps later named it the Rio Colorado de los Martyrs and the El Rio de Cosminas de Rafael, kinda tying its characteristic red water with the blood of martyrs.
Settlers in the 1800s named it the Grand River, possibly because it’s the river that goes through the Grand Canyon.
Colorado became a U.S. state in 1876, but the river didn’t go by the state’s name until 1921.
But in 1921, U.S. Representative Edward T. Taylor from Colorado pushed for Congress to change the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River because it should have the name of the state where it begins.
Congress approved the name change that same year, meaning last year the Colorado River as we know it turned 100 years old. And I bet you didn’t even send it a birthday card. You monster.
I didn’t send one either, but we all probably should have. The Colorado River irrigates 15% of crop output in the U.S. and 13 percent of livestock production.
For example, pumped water irrigates plains in Northern Colorado where alfalfa and corn are grown and used to feed cattle.
And water pumped to southern California feeds vegetable crops that are shipped to restaurants and stores across the U.S.
If you live in the US, chances are you ate something today that was made possible by the Colorado river.
With so much at stake and so many people affected across such a wide area, it should come to no surprise that the Colorado River has been the subject of a LOT of treaties.
The Colorado River Compact in 1922 divided the river into lower and upper compact states.
- Arizona, California, Nevada (lower)
- Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming (upper)
At the time of the agreement, the river was estimated to be close to 16.5 million acre-feet at Lees Ferry, Arizona. This is the dividing line between the lower and upper basins.
So they agreed to split fifteen million acre-feet of water between the lower and upper compact states. I guess 15 million just being a nice round conservative number.
Later on in 1944, another treaty allocated 1.5 million acre-feet per year to Mexico.
Lake Powell feeds the upper compact states, that one was formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, and Lake Mead feeds the lower states, created of course by the Hoover Dam.
The Hoover Dam also supplies almost all the electricity that powers the sights and sounds of Las Vegas.
All in all, the Colorado River has 15 dams, providing power for cities all along its path and forming reservoirs that hold more than 4 times the river’s annual flow.
But going back to the 1922 Compact, it was later discovered that the initial estimate of 15 million acre-feet of water volume was actually kinda skewed.
Turns out the years leading up to the agreement was an abnormally wet period. So there was actually less water available than the agreements specified.
This led to tight regulation of the hydrology in the region, which is why there are a lot of restrictions on rainwater collection in Colorado. Because other states have a right by treaty to that water and it’s kind-of like you’re stealing from them.
In contrast to those abnormally wet years, since the year 2000, the Colorado River Basin has experienced a historic drought.
Sure, the river’s always had wet and dry times, but the last couple of decades are the driest the basin has seen in 1,200 years, based on tree rings and geological data.
And the major factor behind this exceptional drought? Take a guess.
Climate change. It’s climate change.
According to studies by scientists at Colorado State University and University of California-Los Angeles, 53 percent of the loss was caused by warmer temperatures.
Warmer temperatures that reduce the size of the average snowpack in the mountains. Less snow, less meltwater to feed the river.
Also the warmer temps cause plants to uptake more water to prevent dehydration, as well as boosts the amount of water that evaporates off the landscape.
The other 47 percent of the decrease was due to precipitation pattern shifts.
As in there’s less rainfall in the areas that feed the tributaries in the Rocky Mountains and more in other areas that aren’t effective in generating runoff.
The scientists named this the Millennium Drought and compared it with a drought from 1953 to 1968 when the river’s flow also shrank.
But that drought was caused by a period of less precipitation, and not so much by warming temperatures.
There’s actually more rain falling now than the last drought, but the levels are lower because of warmer temperatures.
When you factor in the rate of warming, it’s projected that the river’s flow could decrease by 5 to 20 percent over the next 40 years.
And by the year 2100, it could go down by as much as 55 percent.
Now someone in the comments is going to point out that population growth is also a factor and you would not be wrong about that.
The number of people in the states that rely on the Colorado River has gone up by more than six and a half million over the last 20 years.
In fact some of the fastest growing areas in the country are in this region. Utah saw the largest percentage growth of any state in the country at the last census.
This is an actual problem, many are starting to wonder if these states should be actively discouraging new residents.
Some might use that as a way of dismissing the climate change part of the equation, just saying it’s more people so of course there’s less water to go around, but that doesn’t change the measurably smaller snow pack that feeds the river and the measurably higher temperatures.
Population control is kind-of a hard sell in politics but the increase in population is exacerbating an already bad problem.
To reiterate how much is at stake here… The Colorado River Basin drives a $1.4 trillion economy. If it was its own country, it would be the world’s seventh largest economically.
So, what happens if it dries up completely?
Just for starters, 40 million people will be without water and could lead to major population shifts from some of the country’s largest cities, like L.A., Las Vegas, and Phoenix.
When we hear people talk about mass migration and climate refugees, it’s not just sea level rise flooding coastal cities, it’s this.
But even for people who don’t live in these cities, the effects could be catastrophic.
Less water for crops means more fish dying in rivers so we could see food shortages, reduced hydroelectric power entering the grid, increasing the costs of all those things and countless other connected industries…
All of which could compound on top of themselves and bring the world’s 7th largest economy to its knees, destabilizing other economies and leading to a total economic collapse.
Kinda starting off 2022 with a real joygasm of a video here.
But hold up, don’t panic just yet. There are some efforts in place to keep that from happening.
In October, the Arizona government allocated $30 million to help keep more water in Lake Mead.
These funds will be used to buy or rent water rights with Native American tribes and others who have guaranteed water allocations.
Urban areas are also doing their part in water conservation.
For example, Las Vegas is paying residents to rip out their lawns, and Los Angeles plans to recycle 100 percent of its wastewater by 2035.
The big year to keep an eye out for is 2026. That’s when the river’s management guidelines are set to expire.
Every state and everyone with an interest in the river’s future will be involved in a round of talks that will determine the river’s future.
And for all you out there that really nerd out on the intricacies of water treaties, and I know there are… tens of you out there… It’s gonna make for some pretty riveting CSPAN.
And whatever comes out of those talks had better work or the next round of talks could have mandatory stillsuits and evaporative water collectors on the table, which would suck because those things break down a lot and you need to get to Toshi station to pick up some power converters.
But all jokes aside, look, I know you’re tired of hearing about climate change and it probably feels like everything gets blamed on climate change to the point that even I’m like, okay, not everything is climate change.
And that’s true, not everything is climate change. But this is. And it’s REALLY bad.
We have to make some fundamental changes to the way we live and power our lives. If not by choice, eventually by necessity.
Just ask those farmers in Arizona that are right now deciding which fields to not plant this year.
This is a tangible problem that is affecting people’s lives today. And it’s not just on the Colorado river, this is happening in river systems all around the world.
So I don’t know as much as I talk about reducing climate change, maybe we should talk more about how we adapt to climate change in the coming decades.
Because that’s something we’ve already started doing.
Got anything to add? Anything I missed? Any changes you’ve made over issues like this? Throw them in the comments.