America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2013: Colorado River

Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming

At Risk: Recreation economy, water supply, and wildlife habitat
Threat: Outdated water management
Spanish language Press Release and Colorado Report
Map of Colorado River Basin including annual average water flows and dams (PDF)

Watch the Colorado’s video (full screen button in video box bottom right)

The Colorado River is a lifeline in the desert— its water sustaining tens of millions of people and endangered fish and wildlife in seven states. However, demand on the river’s water now exceeds its supply, leaving the river so over-tapped that dries up to a trickle before reaching the sea. A century of water management policies and practices that have promoted wasteful water use have put the river at a critical crossroads.

To address ongoing drought and increasing demand for water due to climate change, and to put the Colorado River on a path to recovery, the U.S. Congress must support robust funding of critical programs like WaterSmart that address water supply sustainability in the Colorado River Basin and across the West.

The Threat

Green River, CO – A major Colorado River Tributary |  Pete McBride

According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study (December 2012), there is not enough water in the Colorado River to meet the Basin’s current water demands, let alone to support future demand increases from growing populations in an era of climate change.

The Colorado River is often called one of the most controlled and plumbed rivers on the planet. More dams and diversions are planned, especially in the upper basin in Colorado. Currently multiple projects are being proposed along the Front Range of Colorado that would remove more than 300,000 acre feet of new water from the Colorado River and its tributaries– all of this would be removed even before the river reaches Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Climate change is expected to reduce Colorado River’s flow by 10 to 30 percent by 2050. Warmer weather, less snow, a reduction in stream runoff, and changed timing of spring runoff are all likely impacts. Currently scheduled water deliveries from the Colorado system are not sustainable in the future if climate change reduces runoff even by as little as 10 percent. With snowpack once again below average, extreme drought conditions will likely persist when water is needed most.

What Must Be Done

Recreation on the Colorado is a multi-million dollar industry | Pete McBride

The Colorado River is the lifeline of the Southwest, and is truly the economic foundation of a significant portion of the western United States. Managing the severely drained Colorado River in ways that are compatible with growing needs in the Basin is a formidable but inescapable task.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s recent study examines a wide range of proposals to ensure the region has the water it needs for the economy, environment, and quality of life. The Federal government must immediately follow this study with bold action to build a future that includes healthy rivers, state-of-the-art water conservation for cities and agriculture, and water sharing mechanisms that allow communities to adapt to warmer temperatures and more erratic precipitation.

In 2013, the United States Congress must fund programs that encourage sustainable water supply management in the Colorado Basin while protecting rivers and the water supply, businesses, and wildlife they support. Specifically, the U.S. Congress must prioritize funding in the Colorado River Basin to:

  • Support robust and effective funding levels for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSmart and Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse programs. These programs help stakeholders to optimize existing water infrastructure, maximize available water supplies, and provide healthy river flows for communities and ecosystems.
  • Support cost-effective investments in existing water supply infrastructure, and ensure that operations of existing storage can efficiently maximize water delivery in reliable quantities.
  • Prioritize funding for water efficiency and conservation programs.
  • Ensure that funding promotes the protection of rivers by directing management decisions that maintain and restore flows needed for river health in critical areas of the Basin.