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Drought Watch: The Colorado River

The Colorado River has long been a vital source of water and electricity for the American West, providing essential resources for agriculture, industry, and residential use. Unfortunately, the past two decades have seen the river's natural flow decrease by nearly 20 percent due to warming climate and ongoing drought. This has led to significant drops in the water levels of the river's largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Let's look at the current situation of the Colorado River drought, its impacts on the neighboring states, and the efforts being made to address this pressing issue.


The Current Situation

The states along the Colorado River have recently reached an agreement with the Biden administration to conserve an unprecedented amount of their water supply in exchange for about $1 billion in federal funding. This agreement is a temporary solution aimed at protecting Lake Powell and Lake Mead from reaching critical levels over the next three years. The three Lower Basin states, California, Arizona, and Nevada, have agreed to voluntarily conserve 3 million acre-feet of water over this period, amounting to 13 percent of their total allocation from the river.

The Biden administration has committed to compensating the states for three-quarters of the water savings, or 2.3 million acre-feet, which would amount to at least

1.2 billion in federal funds. This money, sourced from the Inflation Reduction Act, would be used to pay farmers and others who voluntarily forego their water supplies.


The Importance of the Colorado River

The Colorado River is a major source of drinking water for some of the country's largest cities, including Los Angeles and Phoenix. It also irrigates vast areas of farmland, ensuring that supermarkets across the United States have access to fresh vegetables during the winter months. Additionally, the river provides cheap hydropower to millions of people in the West.


The river's importance cannot be overstated, and the ongoing drought has raised concerns that water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell may drop so low that hydroelectric dams would have to shut down. This would have significant consequences for the millions of people who rely on the river for their water and energy needs.


The Impact of the Drought

The Colorado River drought has far-reaching effects on the surrounding states and their populations. As water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell continue to drop, the risk of "dead pool" scenarios increases. A "dead pool" occurs when the reservoirs' water levels fall so low that dams effectively block the river from flowing out, leading to significant consequences for both water and power supplies.


The drought has also led to tensions between states that share the river's resources. For example, there have been disputes between Arizona and California, the two states that pull the most water from Lake Mead, over how to distribute cuts in water usage among the Lower Basin states. This has led to difficult negotiations and the need for compromise to reach agreements that benefit all parties.


Efforts to Address the Drought

The recent agreement between the states and the Biden administration is just one example of the efforts being made to address the Colorado River drought. Other initiatives include:

  • The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has called for states to reduce their water usage by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, up to one-third of the river's annual average flow, or face federal intervention.

  • The seven states of the Colorado River basin (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico) have been working on renegotiating cutbacks in their water usage.

  • The federal government's environmental review process is analyzing new proposals and alternatives for distributing water usage cuts among the Lower Basin states.

The Road Ahead

While the recent agreement between the states and the Biden administration is a positive step, it is only a temporary solution. The states and the federal government are planning a major renegotiation of how the Colorado River's resources are allocated in 2026. This process will be crucial in determining the long-term future of the river and its ability to continue providing essential resources to the American West.


How to Help

As individuals, there are several ways we can help address the ongoing drought and protect the Colorado River's resources:

  1. Conserve water: Be mindful of your water usage and look for ways to reduce your consumption. This can include using water-saving appliances, fixing leaks, and implementing water-efficient landscaping.

  2. Stay informed: Keep up-to-date with the latest news and developments regarding the Colorado River drought, and share this information with friends and family.

  3. Support organizations: Donate to or volunteer with organizations dedicated to protecting the Colorado River and addressing the drought, such as the Colorado Riverkeeper or the Colorado River Alliance.

  4. Advocate for change: Contact your local and state representatives and urge them to support policies and legislation aimed at addressing the drought and conserving the Colorado River's resources.

The Colorado River drought affects millions of people and has significant consequences for the American West. The recent agreement between the states and the Biden administration is a positive development, but more work is needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the river and its resources. By staying informed, conserving water, supporting organizations, and advocating for change, we can all play a part in addressing this critical issue.

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