It irrigates 90% of the nation’s winter crops.

Large cities in the West depend on this 1,450-mile long river including Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix, with it supporting 40 million people.

Climate change, drought, explosive population growth in Utah and elsewhere in the region are sapping the strength of the river nicknamed the “workhorse of the West,” threatening to bring it to its knees.

The Colorado River, with its flows that grow more shallow, is in deep trouble. The challenges are so daunting it led American Rivers to dub it the most endangered river in the country in a new report.

“On the Colorado River and nationwide, the climate crisis is a water crisis. Just, equitable solutions for rivers and clean water are achievable and are essential to our health, safety, and future,” said Tom Kiernan, president and chief executive officer of American Rivers.

The advocacy organization for rivers’ health and protection chose the Colorado River based on the wide-ranging impacts of its ailing health.

Among them:

  • Its support of a $1.4 trillion regional economy.
  • Its irrigation of 5 million acres of farm and ranch land.
  • Generating capacity at both Glen Canyon and Hoover dams is already much reduced because of low flows that reduce power supplies for southern California, Los Angeles, Nevada and Arizona.

For the first time, a water shortage on the Colorado River last year triggered mandatory reductions in water allocations to the lower basin states, with Arizona’s Pinal County losing 500,000 acre-feet — or enough to supply 1.5 million households.

Worst Colorado River drought in century prompts feds to cut releases from Lake Powell

“According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Reclamation models, states and other water users in both the U.S. and Mexico could lose access to even more water in coming years that will impact cities and towns, and especially farms and ranches, across the Southwest,” the report notes.

“While collaborative efforts, such as Minute 323, the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ Plan show some promise, they do not go far enough to adequately address the significant and likely permanent decline in regional water supplies.”

The report recommends states tap into billions available in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for climate resiliency projects in the Colorado River Basin to adjust to a future likely to be hotter and drier.

Why understanding snowpack could help the overworked Colorado River
No drought plan for Colorado River? Feds will now craft their own
View Comments

Member organizations of Raise the River have been working together for 20 years to mitigate these deteriorating conditions.

“Collaboration is the only path to avoid catastrophic water shortages for people and nature,” said Jennifer Pitt, National Audubon Society’s Colorado River project director and co-chairwoman of the Raise the River steering committee.

“We know how it works — 10 years ago, the United States and Mexico modernized Colorado River management, collaborating to share the Colorado River’s water proportionately, while boosting cross-border investment in water conservation and beginning to restore the Colorado River in its delta.”

This is not the first year that the Colorado River has received the designation, with earlier designations that include 2010, 2014 and 2017.

Utah ‘behind the times’ and needs watchdog to guard interest in Colorado River, official says
Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.