The Colorado River
Often called “The Hardest Working River in the West,” the Colorado River is an essential resource for life and livelihood. Traveling 1,450 miles through seven U.S. states and the country of Mexico, the river nourishes our communities, sustains critical ecosystems and serves as an engine for economic prosperity. Our future and that of the river are intricately connected.
The Colorado River is a critical water source for seven U.S. states and the country of Mexico. In the U.S., the river is shared by the states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.
16 million U.S. jobs and a regional economy estimated at $1.4 trillion a year depend on the river. Its flow supports communities, ecosystems, farms, ranches, small businesses, recreation and industry.
Native animals, migrating birds and more than two dozen threatened or endangered species depend on the river’s flow. Many diverse and critical habitats are sustained by the Colorado River and its tributaries.
15% of U.S. food crops and two-thirds of all U.S. winter vegetables are grown with Colorado River water.
Nearly 40 million people in the U.S. and Mexico, including 22 federally recognized tribes, depend on the Colorado River as a critical water supply.
The Colorado River Basin is home to seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas and eleven national parks, which include an incredible array of natural and cultural resources. More than six million people visit these protected areas annually.
Hydropower dams on the Colorado River and its tributaries produce enough energy to power more than 780,000 households each year.
One of the nation’s most regulated and over appropriated river systems, the Colorado River epitomizes the challenges facing water resources in a rapidly changing world.
The Colorado River is over appropriated, meaning more water leaves the river system each year than is naturally replenished. This, combined with nearly two decades of severe and sustained drought, is straining the river’s water supply.
Risk of Shortage
The river’s two largest reservoirs are at historic lows and water levels will likely continue to decline. The probability of a federally imposed shortage in future years is high.
Beyond drought and over appropriation, demands for Colorado River water are expected to increase significantly. The number of people who rely on the Colorado River could nearly double, from 40 million to 76.5 million, within the next 50 years.
By 2060, the annual demand on the river could outpace supply by more than 3.2 million acre-feet. That’s enough water to supply 8 million U.S. residents each year. Imbalance puts the entire system at risk.
There’s no single solution to meeting the challenges that lie ahead. Sustaining the Colorado River will require short- and long-term actions, including innovation, cooperation and financial resources.
From cutting-edge equipment and technology that reduces water-use to cloud-seeding activities to improve snow production, innovation and scientific exploration are fundamental investments as we discover ways to improve efficiency and extend water resources.
Experimental programs designed to slow water-level declines and reduce the potential for federal shortage declaration will benefit the river and all its users. System Conservation, a collaborative effort by water managers to work with private landowners, is just one example of how agencies can work together to help address challenges.
Exploring ways to do more with less is one of many critical steps needed to protect and sustain the Colorado River. Our individual water conservation efforts in communities across the West are improving efficiency and extending the availability of Colorado River resources.
The Colorado River’s sustainability depends on the cooperation of many stakeholders to work within the complex laws and agreements that govern the river. Working together, water managers can better address the diverse and varying needs of water users.
Work to preserve and protect the diverse ecosystems of the river, its tributaries and watersheds is critical in sustaining the health of the river system and its future sustainability. Environmental solutions are often a collective (yet, not always congruous) endeavor that includes private, individual, organizational and public efforts.
Learning about the challenges facing the river system and how the Colorado River touches our lives, connects us to the Colorado River and collectively holds us accountable for it sustainability. This deeper knowledge can inspire us to make informed decisions and take meaningful actions that embrace water stewardship.