The Colorado River's coming crisis

Posted: Feb 28, 2011

Written by

Doug Kenney, Director, Western Water Policy Program

There's been a spate of news stories lately about how grim the water supply outlook is for the Colorado River, the lifeline for 30 million people in Colorado, six other states, and Mexico. And after a decade of persistently dry weather, the river does face challenging times. But amidst all the gloom and doom, there is hope: By driving home the simple reality that the Colorado has been pushed beyond its limits, the current crisis could be the catalyst that leads to the adoption of innovative, long-term solutions to the river's problems.

First, the bad news -- the Colorado is indeed in trouble. In the first phase of our new report, Rethinking the Future of the Colorado River, the Colorado River Governance Initiative studied long-term trends in Colorado River flows, and the amount of water being withdrawn for human use. Our work shows that even under normal conditions, river flows have been just barely sufficient to meet human needs.

In other words, the river's much-publicized recent troubles -- like Lake Mead dropping to low levels not seen since the 1960s -- can't be entirely blamed on the recent string of dry years. Rather, they are the result of steady increases in the amount of water humans are taking from the river. Even if the basin were to suddenly return to historically normal conditions, the prospect of looming water shortages would not go away.

Don't miss in-depth discussion of the future of the Colorado at the upcoming Clyde O. Martz Summer Conference 2011: "Navigating the Future of the Colorado River Basin."

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