Changing Planet

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 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.]

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.
  • Colorado Travel

    I think that the weather has been so strange, the poor thing doesn’t know what to do anymore! There is drout, over flooding, huricanes, tornadoes in winter time,and the list goes on and on.

  • Colorado Ness Monster

    What would Mr. Waterman have us do? Give up our farms and lives to go live in a FEMA relocation camp? The legal and societal framework of Colorado water usage is not so easily unraveled.

    But I suppose the eco-terrorists that run the NatGeo, the Nature Conservancy, ColoradoCanyon Trust, etc will do whatever they must to drag us back to Eden, by force if necessary. The only thing that will stop people from using water that BELONGS to them is for that water to be taken away at gunpoint by blue-helmeted UN goons.

    We know who Mr.Waterman works for. He isn’t an American, with allegiance to the Constitutional Republic. He has contempt for the rule of law (Constitution) and the democratic process. He is a denizen of the One-World Police State, where the ruling philosophies are, “The End Justifies the Means”, and, “If we don’t succeed with lies, we will finish the job with bullets.”

  • Ray Walker

    January 17, 2009

    Southern Nevada Water Authority

    Dear Ms. Mulroy and SNWA,

    As we all know, Obama’s administration is investigating projects for the upcoming Stimulus Bill of $825 billion.

    Development of a non-tributary fresh water Source that, on average, could yield a million acre feet for the region and be utilized to keep Lake Mead reasonably FULL is worthy of consideration.

    Development of the Source is not outrageous, but I agree when Ms. Mulroy said, “Policymakers will need to become creative, even ‘outrageous’.”

    The SNWA should make the following known to the Obama administration:

    Lake Mead holds 28.5 million acre feet and when FULL can produce 2075 megawatts of renewable energy each year.

    By comparison, 21,000 desalination plants in 120 countries around the world produce 3.4 million acre feet a year. A $300 million dollar wind farm will only produce 150 megawatts !

    Lake Mead ’s Hoover Dam and 17 generators are already built, paid for and fully functioning!

    To appreciate a new Source solution to keep Lake Mead reasonably FULL, it is important to understand that all of the present tributary water flowing into and/or stored in Lake Mead already belongs to others and is subject to The Law of the (Colorado) River which is an accumulation of court decrees, compacts and case law stretching back to when the indigenous tribes first inhabited the desert Southwest.

    In other words, “don’t even think about touching one drop of the present Colorado River water supply; it already legally belongs to someone else” !

    Such non-tributary water must be fresh water which is under no circumstances any part of any tributary or groundwater that would drain into or possibly be connected to or eventually ever reach (and never has reached) any part of the Colorado River or any of its tributaries in any state.

    Delivery of non-tributary water from the new Source would not be subject to the provisions of the Law of the River because such water was never part of the Colorado River or its tributaries when the Laws of the River were set in stone.

    More importantly, non-tributary water from the new Source could be stored in Lake Mead WITHOUT DAMAGE to the existing water rights of those who already own and control all of the presently existing Colorado River water.

    If water from the new Source were to be stored in Lake Mead, the surface area of Lake Mead would increase. That surface area increase would cause more evaporation. The increase in evaporation would have to be subtracted off of the amount of non-tributary water stored.

    For example, Lake Mead presently has in storage approximately 15 million acre feet and has a surface area of 93,000 acres. If one million acre feet of non-tributary water were to be added, the surface area would increase to 97345 acres. The additional 4345 acres would cause the evaporation losses( +-7 ft/yr) to increase by 30,415 acre feet per year. In order to keep the non-tributary water in Lake Mead without damage to the water rights of others, 30,415 acre feet (3%) would have to be subtracted off of the million acre feet of non-tributary water accumulated. Each year, the evaporation loss would be re-evaluated and accounted for.

    The increase in renewable energy production due to the increase in reservoir depth could more than pay for the rental of the available air space in Lake Mead .

    If an extra million acre feet of non-tributary water could be accumulated in Lake Mead EACH YEAR, Lake Mead could, in a few years, be kept reasonably FULL and functioning rather than going DRY as predicted.

    Utilizing the million acre feet to keep Lake Mead full is only one option available. It may not be desirable to put all the fresh water in one shopping basket.

    Some of this million acre feet a year could be used by Las Vegas (SNWA) and the cities of California .

    Large instantaneous releases could be made to seasonally flood & restore the Colorado River Delta, worth $2.4 billion a year.

    75,000 acre feet a year could be released for diversion into the old All American Canal for groundwater recharge purposes to keep the 1.3 million people of Mexicali , Mexico from being without water in exchange for Mexico ’s cooperation with the drug and immigration issues.

    Non-tributary water in storage is rather amazing in that it can be utilized for exchanges. There are instances where owners of the non-tributary water can simply trade/exchange their non-tributary water for the natural flow water and thus put water to various beneficial uses in geographic areas where previously it would have not been allowed.

    All exchanges have to approved, properly measured and administered for by those in authority to avoid damage to existing water rights.

    The legal concepts associated with the movement and storage of non-tributary water are certainly not new to Bureau of Reclamation projects and private ventures throughout the west.

    Vast networks of diversion, storage, delivery and re-use of non-tributary waters enable the Colorado Big Thompson, Fryingpan-Arkansas, San Juan-Chama and scores of other projects to function on a daily basis in the desert Southwest.

    Being from Colorado , the new Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar knows a great deal about these projects and can verify how they function.

    With communication, cooperation and coordination, exchanges may be possible which would help solve the issues surrounding Las Vegas , but also the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta .

    As an interesting example for evaluation, at times on a space available basis conveyance structures could receive the stored non-tributary water IN EXCHANGE for leaving an equal amount in northern California .

    Such an exchange could be a win-win trade.

    Point being that a water exchange can be made hundreds of miles away and can involve sometimes several totally separate river basins simultaneously without damage to anyone’s legal water entitlements.

    Nevada , Las Vegas and California need “WATER INSURANCE”.

    A totally versatile supply of millions of acre feet of non-tributary fresh water stored in numerous reservoirs may very well mean the difference between financial life or death for thousands of Nevadans & Californians in the event of severe drought, earthquakes, terrorism or even guagga mussel attacks.

    For all entities/agencies/municpalities/bureaus/states a readily available supply of fresh water for mitigation would certainly beat the millions of dollars spent for litigation, which never creates one new drop of fresh water !

    The best laid plans to mine the groundwater of the deserts for Las Vegas and the cities of Southern California may not turn out as designed.

    A water insurance policy to avoid the devastation & disappointment when all does not go well could avoid an avalance of cease and desist orders which might very well curtail the communities of the future.

    I would appreciate it if the SNWA would let me know that they have received this communique’.

    As always, I am open to all suggestions that enable a complete confidential disclosure to occur so that the SNWA and others can evaluate the merits of developing the Source and pass the information on to the Obama administration.

    Ray Walker (Retired Water Rights Analyst)

    “The laughter of fools has always been the reward of any man who comes up with a new thought.” Stephen Lister

    My qualifications in the water rights arena include many years with the State Engineer’s Office as an administrator of water resources on the Arkansas , Rio Grande , White, South Platte, and Colorado Rivers . As a Water Court Referee for the Colorado River , I processed and wrote some 2500 water decrees that were confirmed and signed by the District Water Judge. As a private consultant, I evaluated, formulated and completed hundreds of water court applications which involved new water rights, plans for augmentation, exchanges, changes of water rights, well permit approvals and required diligence filings.

  • Tal Bal

    The author lied when she said, ” the river has not flowed to the sea since 1998.” A quick look at google satellite shows the river flowing to the Delta.

  • Colorado Ness Monster
  • Tmann

    I live in CA, and the people in Colorado think that they own all of the water. Californians pay 20% of all federal income taxes. Can you imagine how stupid it would be to cut off water to an economy responsible for delivering 20% of the federal budget? It will all be sold to Nestle anyway, as our traitors in Congress are so corrupt, the Agenda 21 will allow them to confiscate the river to pay back the Chinese or some stupid nonsense.

  • Jim Dyckhoff

    It is GODS water that falls from the skys…and only
    by his direction….first to feed the thirst of the earth for
    its natural creatures including man…
    and secondly to feed its crops from back yard
    gardens on up …not for the utilization of centralized
    organizations….to barter…perhaps we are seeing the
    reinstatement of his plan….

  • Danny Adams

    Colorado Ness Monster wrote: “The only thing that will stop people from using water that BELONGS to them is for that water to be taken away at gunpoint by blue-helmeted UN goons.”

    Or if somebody upriver from you uses so much that you no longer can.

  • alansfmd

    Better utilization of water in agriculture is an absolute necessity if there is to be any hope of avoiding serious water shortages in the short-term. Drip irrigation substantially cuts the waste of water with standard irrigation techniques.

  • Mikey

    Mr. Colorado Ness Monster, you are a deranged nutjob. For the sake of your family please seek help.

  • Emma

    Thank you for the story, I tried to look up the name of the company, but I was unsuscescful, Would you be kind enough to send me the link to the energy company that will be doing the project.Thank you.



  • Free Articles

    Hello There. I discovered your blog the use of msn. This is an extremely neatly written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and return to read extra of your helpful information. Thanks for the post. I will definitely return.

  • hazel

    hello everyone

  • hazel

    man thats horabel wonder how that felt

  • tiffany


  • Travie

    Sorry to crap on this well written yet entirely biased article, but there are several issues that need to be addressed:

    First off, the rancher who tried to have you arrest probably didn’t think he “owns the river”. If his property boundaries extended across the river, than he had every right to consider you as a trespasser.

    Second, a “stream” and a “river” are synonyms. It just makes you look stupid when you try to increase the drama or suspense of something by using a word that means the exact same thing.

    Finally, do you even know ANYTHING about Coloradans? I live in Denver, and I certainly don’t think that I own the river. I am also well aware of the fact that the river is slowly lowering in water level, and yes, I do think that more should be done about it. However, you implied throughout the entire article that absolutely NOTHING was being done to help stop this gradual lowering in water level.

    Judging by everyone else’s comments, I really don’t have anything else to add. The moral of the story; don’t come to a debate with a biased opinion. Know the good sides of something, rather than just the negative. It could save you from such a bashing in the comments again.

  • AL

    I have a solution to help the Colorado river. Reduce water waste in your home. The majority of water used in the home is in the bathroom. Most of the water goes down the drain during a shower. Using the Water Select® valve reduces water waste by 20% to 70%. The valve is one of a kind and pays for itself within a few months. It even saves money on electricity and gas used to heat the water that is being wasted. For more information visit

  • Joe

    If the US would stop illegal emigration and stop letting 3rd world trash in. All the tax payer money that goes to them so the US socialist Democrats get more votes. The US spends 1 trillion a year for all the entitlement programs and only 5% of the people in those programs realy deserve it. Cut founding to 3rdthe world trash environment is saved its that easy.

  • douglas burgmann

    I had the pleasure of meeting Jon Waterman this last week, as I am a student at CMC, as he visited our class there in Carbondale.
    I wanted to find out information surrounding the dominant paradigm of the day about the Colorado River, and the dominant way of thinking today surrounding the Colorado River. I know that these two paradigms differ, as I am writing an argumentative paper on this for my course project at CMC BASS studies. Please, respond asap? Thanks! Doug

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