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About the Colorado River Basin

The Colorado River

The Colorado River is a national treasure, the lifeblood of the arid West and essential to daily life for farms, ranches, cities, suburbs and the tourism economy across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.

The Colorado River's delta was once teeming with water and wildlife, supporting communities and economies.

Now, part of the river's delta has dried up due to increasing demand and diminishing supply. Restoration is in order to bring back the water and wildlife that have vacated parts of the delta.

The Colorado River Basin drains a total of 243,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of France. It plummets 14,000 feet from the Rockies over the course of the river’s 1,450-mile journey from Colorado to Mexico.

The Colorado River supports a quarter million jobs and produces $26 billion in economic output from recreational activities alone, drawing revenue from the 5.36 million adults who use the Colorado River for such activities each year.

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More than 33 million people across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Mexico depend on the Colorado River for their water supply.

Click to enlarge map

The river is a symbol of the West and it sustains life in the dry states through which it passes. Just as humans depend on healthy blood flow, the Colorado River depends on healthy water flows, which are being compromised by current management practices and policies, as well as a warming climate.

The Law of the River

“The Colorado River is managed and operated under numerous compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines collectively known as the ‘Law of the River.’ This collection of documents apportions the water and regulates the use and management of the Colorado River among the seven basin states and Mexico.” – U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on The Law of the River

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 is the cornerstone of the Law of the River. It was negotiated by the seven Colorado River Basin states and the federal government. However, it put the river on an unsustainable course. “Based on flows from a wetter time, the 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied out one-fifth more river water than what exists today.” – The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict

“The Colorado’s modern notoriety…stems not from its wild rapids and plunging canyons but from the fact that it is the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world. It also has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any comparable river in the world.” – Cadillac Desert

The Challenge

The national treasure that is the Colorado River has an uncertain future.

“It is the most contested, played-upon, silt-laden, diverted, engineered, dammed, stored (four times its volume and one-fifth of its length is held in reservoirs), farmed with, and metro-dependent river in America.” – The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict

Demand for the Colorado River’s water outstrips supply. The Bureau of Reclamation says: “Based on preliminary assessments, large supply-demand imbalances greater than 3.5 million acre-feet (maf) are plausible over the next 50 years when considering a water supply scenario that incorporates changes in climate.” (An acre-foot is an amount of water that would cover an acre with a depth of one foot, which equals 325,851 gallons. The average U.S. household uses 127,400 gallons a year, according to the American Water Works Association.)

The main factors contributing to this imbalance are:

  • Population growth and resulting increase the demand for water.
  • Climate change that is causing a hotter, drier West. The Bureau of Reclamation concluded that climate change will reduce water flow in the Colorado River Basin approximately 9 percent by 2050.

The Study projects that most shortages will occur in the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California), in large part because these states already consume their full apportionment of Colorado River water and their demands are projected to rise substantially beyond their claims under the Colorado River Compact.

The river doesn’t even reach the ocean anymore – it dries up in Mexico.

This scarcity of water in the Colorado River Basin will increasingly pit agricultural and municipal water interests against each other. Trampled in the tug of war will be the natural environment, threatening the health of the river and the wildlife and tourism economy that depend on it.

We’ve reached the age of limits for the Colorado River. We can’t just keep taking water from the river. We need to start recognizing the value of this water system and planning responsibly for future generations.

It’s our job to be responsible users of the river so that people, businesses, farms, ranches and wildlife will continue to benefit from this national treasure and to ensure the preservation of the Western way of life.