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The Colorado River IS Running Dry

By Jonathan Waterman During a recent discussion of water at the Aspen Institute’s Environment Forum In Colorado, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told a packed house: “The American Southwest is not one of those regions where there is water scarcity. It’s hard to believe, given all the hyping in the national and local and regional...

By Jonathan Waterman
During a recent discussion of water at the Aspen Institute’s Environment Forum In Colorado, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told a packed house: “The American Southwest is not one of those regions where there is water scarcity. It’s hard to believe, given all the hyping in the national and local and regional press.” 

Photograph: Pete McBride on the parched Colorado River delta, by Jonathan Waterman


The audience and his copanelists–Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and freshwater fellow for the National Geographic Society, and Pat Mulroy, general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority (overseeing Las Vegas water)–were taken aback by these statements.

Throughout the Southwest, and particularly in a region that I know, the Colorado River Basin, the so called “water buffalos” (those who line their pockets with virtual water) commonly talk about this river as though it has not run dry. If only because the water continues to irrigate 2,000,000 acres of agriculture, run 336 miles into Phoenix and Tucson, 224 miles to Los Angeles, or under the Rockies toward Denver through no less than 12 tunnels. So water-related business certainly isn’t scarce. That includes Kentucky Blue Grass lawns, water-consumptive cotton, and a mega dairyshed of cows eating Colorado River grown hay to produce countless gallons of milk.

Since my well pumps water out of the headwaters of this river, and my children will inherit whatever water remains, I have spent the last three years investigating the river’s shrinking pains. Supported by the National Geographic Expedition Council and New Belgium Brewing (which relies on Colorado River water to make beer), I paddled the 1,450-mile river from source to sea. After that five-month journey, I have been interviewing officials, visiting dams, and repeatedly flying over the river and its many diversions in small planes. My goal is to better understand what the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Stephen Chu, described as a crisis in the West that will match the rising of oceans on the coasts. (Read more about Jonathan Waterman.)

During my investigative journey in the headwaters, a rancher who believes (like many other Coloradoans) that he owns the river, tried to have me arrested for trespassing in my tiny raft. That section of the river in fact is sometimes drained to steam size by diversions to distant Denver.

In the Grand Canyon, I accompanied researchers who showed me how Glen Canyon Dam’s trapping of sediment and chilling of the river have vastly altered the ecosystem throughout our most scenic national park. Four native fish there are endangered.

In Las Vegas I interviewed Mulroy and saw the largest reservoir in the nation, Lake Mead, sunken to an alarming low tide. So low, in fact, that the Southern Nevada Water Authority is drilling a pipeline under the lake so that it can continue to take its share until the river-fed reservoir runs dry.

I saw a river being both depleted and salted thick by farms (78 percent of the river goes to agriculture). Few farmers are implementing sustainable water irrigation or crops more suited to the desert. At the Aspen conference, Postel described conservation measures as a silver lining: “There’s so much more that can be done with existing water.”

As I continued south on my run of the Colorado, I met citizens suing the Bureau of Reclamation for water polluted by e-coli and fertilizers, the Kwapa (or People of the River) Native Americans who have been disenfranchised by the lack of water, and an invasive and toxic plant called giant cane (arundo donax) that is growing over and literally consuming the last 200 miles of river-cum-farm ditch.

Fifty miles from the sea, 1.5 miles south of the Mexican border, I saw a river evaporate into a scum of phosphates and discarded water bottles. This dirty water sent me home with feet so badly infected that I couldn’t walk for a week. And a delta once renowned for its wildlife and wetlands is now all but part of the surrounding and parched Sonoran Desert. According to Mexican scientists whom I met with, the river has not flowed to the sea since 1998. If the Endangered Species Act had any teeth in Mexico, we might have a chance to save the giant sea bass (totoaba), clams, the Sea of Cortez shrimp fishery that depends upon freshwater returns, and dozens of bird species.

So let this stand as an open invitation to the former Secretary of the Interior and all water buffalos who insist upon telling us that there is no scarcity of water here or in the Mexican Delta. Leave the sprinklered green lawns outside the Aspen conferences, come with me, and I’ll show you a Colorado River running dry from its headwaters to the sea. It is polluted and compromised by industry and agriculture. It is overallocated, drought stricken, and soon to suffer greatly from population growth. If other leaders in our administration continue the whitewash, the scarcity of knowledge and lack of conservation measures will cripple a western civilization built upon water. “You can either do it in crisis mode,” Pat Mulroy said at this conference, “or you can start educating now.”


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This is the first of a series of Colorado River notes from Jonathan Waterman, author of Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River (National Geographic Books, May 2010). For more information on his Colorado River Project, visit his website and Save the Colorado‘s website.

Read more blog posts by Jonathan Waterman.

Read more about the Colorado Delta on Alexandra Cousteau’s Blue Planet Expedition website. Waterman recently accompanied Cousteau down stretches of the Colorado River.

Learn about John Wesley Powell, a founding figure in National Geographic and conservation history, who explored the Colorado.


[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

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Meet the Author

Tasha Eichenseher
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.