National Geographic Society Newsroom

Extreme Heat and Drought in Fire-Stricken Colorado River Basin: This Is What it Looks Like in 2012

As I write this, the air outside is hazy from the fires raging up and down Colorado’s Front Range, including the Flagstaff fire, pictured above, as seen from my office window in Boulder, Colorado. Some of the smoke is what’s left of nearly five hundred homes that have burned in communities to the north and...

As I write this, the air outside is hazy from the fires raging up and down Colorado’s Front Range, including the Flagstaff fire, pictured above, as seen from my office window in Boulder, Colorado.

Some of the smoke is what’s left of nearly five hundred homes that have burned in communities to the north and south.  This year is shaping up to be grim, with massive fires in the wake of extraordinarily low snowfall and rainfall and shockingly low levels of humidity – relative humidity dropped to 4% several days ago.

My posts to this blog have often focused on what the Colorado River Basin will look like in the future, given the projected increases in temperature and decreases in water supply, as well as a swelling population.  Peering into the crystal ball of the future is a funny business, but 2012 may be giving us that view, except that we don’t yet have the extra 20+ million people here we expect will depend on Colorado River water by 2060.  Not only was 2012 snowpack at a record low, but in the past two months we have seen extreme drought conditions develop over much of the region.

The fires capture our attention – it’s apocalyptic to see tens of thousands of people rushing from their homes to get out of harm’s way (though the scariest of these fires, which are those burning in large population centers, are not in the basin, but rather nearby in communities that use Colorado River water).  But the ravages of extreme heat and drought are manifold, particularly in the Upper Colorado Basin.

Irrigated agriculture, which dominates in this region, is hard hit.  In Colorado, farmers and ranchers are weathering conditions old-timers say they’ve never seen. Soil moisture is at 5-10%, well below average conditions of 40%.  Low soil moisture surely contributed to the Last Chance fire, which burned 45,000 acres in 12 hours on Colorado’s eastern plains.

Water managers who supply farms and ranches are struggling to address low streamflow conditions, and in some cases must limit water deliveriesThe U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that conditions on half of all pasture and rangeland in Colorado are rated very poor or poor.  Ranchers across western Colorado, worried they cannot feed their stock, are reducing their herds.  In other words, many farmers and ranchers in the Upper Basin are having an extremely bad year, and 2012 profits will be low.  No federal drought emergencies have yet been declared, but there’s an expectation that requests will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile the rivers, and the people and wildlife who depend on them, are struggling.  Water levels in rivers of the Upper Colorado basin are extraordinarily low, with the majority of streamgages reporting below average flows.  River outfitters must contend with shorter seasons and the loss of clientele that comes with lower flows.  Wildlife managers, concerned about low flows and dangerously warm water temperatures, have issued fishing restrictions.  In at least one instance out-of-the-ordinary water releases are being made to benefit the recreation industry and wildlife that depend on flows in Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon.

Thirsty Cities

What about the cities that depend on Colorado River water?  Some municipalities in the Upper Basin have adopted restrictions on outdoor water use (e.g. New Castle, CO where water rights are restricted in a drought year, and Steamboat Springs, CO, where the river simply isn’t running high enough for water to be diverted into the city’s ditch).  But the largest urban Colorado River water users don’t yet feel the need to curtail their customers’ water use.  Denver Water has asked residents to voluntarily reduce outdoor water use.  Las Vegas and San Diego are requiring residents to water their landscapes during the cooler morning and evening hours, but do not otherwise impose restrictions.  The City of Phoenix is not restricting their customers’ water use at all.  It’s particularly worrisome to think about the residents of these cities – how will they know there’s a water problem in the basin if they aren’t being required to reduce their water use?

In fact, throughout the Lower Colorado River Basin it’s harder to tell there’s a drought.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is projecting that Arizona and California will use more water than expected this year, to the tune of 290,000 acre-feet (which happens to be more than the entire state of Nevada gets to use in a year).  These overruns are attributed to irrigators in Southern California and Arizona, as well as to Southern California’s urban water users, likely due to warmer than average temperatures.  Eventually these water users will be required to “pay back” their overruns, but some might consider it remarkable that all Colorado River water users haven’t made efforts to reduce water use in the face of such extreme drought.

Total water storage in Lakes Powell and Mead, the two gigantic reservoirs that sit above the Lower Basin, is projected to decrease by more than 4.3 million acre-feet in 2012.  (In other words, outflows will exceed inflows.  A basic mass balance calculation leads me to conclude that this is the volume by which Lower Basin water uses – including deliveries to Mexico and reservoir evaporation – will exceed this year’s supply from the Upper Basin.)

Wake-Up Call?

Much of what I’ve reported here is due to the sheer physical extremes of this year’s heat and drought.  Some of it reflects the efforts of water managers to address these dire conditions.  But some of it reflects business as usual.  We don’t know what climate conditions next year will bring, and even the good work of Reclamation and others to project future conditions in the Colorado Basin can’t tell us what climate conditions will bring over the next few decades.  Given what we’re going through in 2012, it would be prudent to plan for the possibility of extreme heat and drought in the future.

We may not always like what Mother Nature has in store, but we’re the fools if we don’t figure out how to live with it.  2012 is a wake-up call; hopefully the states and water users that share the Colorado River’s water are listening.  We cannot sustain water use that exceeds what the Colorado River gives us.


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


About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Pitt
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.