5 Actions Needed to Save the Colorado River

Co-authored with Bart Miller, water program director for Western Resource Advocates, and originally published on the Arizona Republic

Colorado River |  Bureau of Land ManagementColorado River | Bureau of Land Management

The majestic Colorado River cuts a 1,450-mile path through the American West before drying up well short of the sea — its natural finish line at the Gulf of California.

Reservoirs once filled to the brim from the Colorado and its tributaries are at historic lows due to an unprecedented drought and growing human demands. Shrunken stream flows now pose serious challenges for wildlife and recreation, as well as cities, farms and others who rely upon the river.

Reports come out every week, pointing to the critical condition of the Colorado River — Lake Mead, the work-horse reservoir for the region, is at a historic low; groundwater supplies for the river’s basin are dramatically shrinking; and Lake Powell water levels are low enough that there is concern the generators that supply enough electricity to power 350,000 homes might be shut down.

Steps currently being taken to improve the situation are not up to the task of bringing the river system back into balance and providing a reliable water supply.

We need bold and powerful measures. Fortunately, we have practical, affordable, common-sense solutions that can be applied today to protect the flow of the river, ensure economic vitality and secure water resources for millions of Americans.

As we look at the specific solutions that can save the Colorado River and our water supply, it helps to know the facts: The demand for water from the Colorado River exceeds the supply.

That shortage could jeopardize the drinking water for 36 million people, our agricultural communities, future ­economic growth and the $26.4 billion river-based recreational economy, which supports more than 234,000 jobs.

In addition, the river’s imbalance is wreaking havoc on the West’s natural ecosystems, harming world-class fisheries and unique natural wonders.

There is no single solution — or magic infrastructure project — that will produce enough water to overcome the imbalance of supply and demand. Our research shows there are five common-sense solutions that can help improve the health of the Colorado River, grow the economies of the seven basin states and protect essential Western natural habitats:

  1. Municipal conservation, such as improved landscaping techniques, rebate programs that incentivize water-saving devices and standardized water audits.
  2. Municipal reuse through gray-water treatment and reuse for irrigation, industrial uses and other purposes.
  3. Agricultural efficiency and water banking, which are voluntary, compensated improvements in irrigation efficiency and technology, crop shifting and other measures that avoid permanently taking agricultural lands out of production.
  4. Renewable energy and energy efficiency, including wind, rooftop solar and geothermal energy solutions, and new water-efficient thermoelectric power plants.
  5. Innovative water opportunities, such as invasive-plant removal, dust-on-snow mitigation and targeted inland desalinization.

When used together, these five solutions can do more than ensure we have enough water; they can actually provide us with a surplus.

7 Responses to “5 Actions Needed to Save the Colorado River”

Mike Imbesi

I’m pretty sure that hydraulic fracture drilling (fracking) is not taking place in the Colorado basin, and either way, the largest consumer of the Colorado’s flow is agriculture in California.

    Ken Neubecker

    Actually, fracking has been going on in the Colorado basin for many years. The Roan Plateau is one place, but nearly all the tight sand gas wells of western Colorado are fracked, and its been going on a lot longer than over on the Front Range.

    The biggest potential water use threat here though is from any potential oil shale development.

Henry Hurtado

If we can go to the moon,We can start bringing watter from Canada,Alaska,ect, ect. make it international,it can be done.but you have to start now !stop complaining,crying,and begin diging horizantaly there is a way and its not imposible ! Thank you Henry

Pauline Reetz

The cheapest and FASTEST way to get “new” water is to conserve. We have just put a law on the books in Colorado to phase out older, less efficient shower heads, aucets and other equipment. That’s a start. The biggest consumer of water in California and the other western states, including Colorado, is AGRICULTURE. That industry also needs to do their part in using water more efficiently! It may take some changes in the law, but that’s a lot less expensive that importing water from Canada, Alaska or the Mississippi.


Very surprised that this list ignores the gradual phasing out and removal of Glen Canyon Dam. Without this action the river cannot be “saved”.

– Removing this dam and reservoir would eliminate the huge evaporation pond behind it and result in more water availability for Mead Reservoir downstream (it’s not a “lake”). The reservoir currently evaporates an estimated 8% of the total Colorado River flow! This savings could be utilized by the rarely full Mead Reservoir and even downstream flows to the water deprived delta and Gulf of California.

– Powell is filling in with huge amounts of sediment every day and losing storage capacity constantly. This is not sustainable and interestingly this trapped sediment is desperately needed downstream of Glen Canyon Dam to replenish the sediment starved ecosystem of the Grand Canyon and beaches used for camping.

– “Saving the Colorado” without resurrecting and restoring the submerged Glen Canyon isn’t possible. This was one of the most beautiful places on earth, and restoring it would expand the longest and most impressive whitewater river float in the world, combined with the Grand downstream, and solve the ecosystem degradation problems that won’t go away with the dam in place.

I hope that American Rivers and others will get behind a real, long-term solution, even if it takes a couple decades to implement it.

Doug Shepard

Please consider building an aquaduct from the Columbia River to the fertile central valley of California. Then, at least we would still be able to grow food for our growing population.