If you live somewhere in the United States, there’s a pretty good chance you have ingested Colorado River water, likely in the form of winter-harvest lettuce from southern Arizona or California. There are many reasons to celebrate the Colorado River, and fresh, baby romaine leaves in February is just one of them. Also rafting the Grand Canyon, bathing your baby in San Diego, bird-watching in the Sonoran Desert, fountain-gazing on the Strip in Las Vegas, and watching the cattle roam high mountain pastures in the Rocky Mountains.
For more than a century, photographers have been capturing the Colorado River and the ways we use its water. It’s a long-standing relationship, and an important one.
This July 25, I’m joining with others to honor the Colorado on the day it was given its name from headwaters to delta (by the U.S. Congress, exerting its power in 1921). Unfortunately, the Colorado and the regions that use its water are increasingly gaining notoriety for unsustainable water management, and the reasons for our foibles are many.
Not least among these are the complications of the Law of the River, shorthand for a vast collection of policy, law, interstate compacts, and international treaties. Most of it was developed in the last century, and it worked well for many decades. But as the population served by the Colorado has grown, we are beginning to feel its limitations. States and the federal government have been forging new agreements to supplement the Law of the River, and more will be needed for a sustainable future.
Enhanced water conservation must be a centerpiece of those future agreements – in cities, on farms, anywhere where water is consumed. Increasing the efficiency of our water use can help ensure that our grandchildren have the opportunity to experience the Colorado River’s greatness in person, not just in photographs. Water conservation is a no-regrets strategy for building our resilience to future droughts, and it’s a lot cheaper than building expensive and energy-intensive new supply projects like desalinization and pipelines that import water from distant locations.
There are limits to the amount of water we can remove from the Colorado, and there are limits to the dollars our society will be willing to spend on new water projects. Water conservation can help us live – and live well – within those limits.
Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund.