How to “Fix” the Colorado River?

Supply and Demand on the Colorado River. Source: USBR


Much ado has been made in recent headlines about growing scarcity on the Colorado River.  Water supply, as reflected by what’s left in storage in the basin’s big reservoirs, has dropped from full just over a decade ago to 64% today, and the river hasn’t run regularly to the sea since the 90’s.

While some water users have the legal right to extract more water from the basin, it is evident that by adding new demands to this over-used system we will create shortages somewhere else.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has started working with the seven states in the basin (AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV, UT and WY) to study the future of supply and demand on the Colorado, and to search for solutions that fill the ‘gap’ between them, as illustrated in the right hand side of the graph above.  Stay tuned for great debates about the merits of cloud seeding versus conservation, and desalinization versus re-use.

But what strikes me as most promising is the commitment from Reclamation and the states to consider the health of the basin’s rivers.  Their latest report discusses how they will assess the future status of ecosystem health, by looking at projected conditions for endangered species, river-based wildlife refuges, and even for a host of freshwater and riparian habitats on the mainstem and major tributaries.

They draw the connection between the health of the river and the health of the economy not only by measuring how well consumptive water demands can be met in all sectors, but also by discussing how they’ll measure future flows from the boater’s perspective, and how recreation-based economies may fare.

That a study of the future of the Colorado should include the health of the river itself might seem obvious.  Yet the vast system of pipes and canals we’ve built from the top to the bottom of this basin point to the Colorado’s central importance as a water supply to the arid Southwest, and too often we overlook the river itself.  How else can we explain the damage we have done to so many of the basin’s rivers over the last half century?

The future of this region promises to be more crowded, and likely hotter and drier, but that doesn’t have to spell the death of the Colorado River.  Reclamation and the states are facing the need to make decisions of great consequence about how to supply and manage water use in every sector.  Let’s hope their new commitment to look at impacts on the river gives them the wisdom to forge a path forward that meets our legitimate water needs and protects and restores healthy flows.

Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund.



Meet the Author
Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund. She works with Colorado River water users throughout the Colorado River basin—including seven states in the United States and two in Mexico—to develop practical programs to restore river habitats and to dedicate water to environmental resources. She has worked as a park ranger and a Congressional aide, and has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University.