After Decades of Warming and Drying, the Colorado River Struggles to Water the West
The Colorado River is tapped out.
Another dry year has left the waterway that supplies 40 million people in the Southwest parched. A prolonged 21-year warming and drying trend is pushing the nation’s two largest reservoirs to record lows. For the first time this summer, the federal government will declare a shortage.
Climate change is exacerbating the current drought. Warming temperatures are upending how the water cycle functions in the Southwest. The 1,450-mile long river acts as a drinking water supply, a hydroelectric power generator, and an irrigator of crop fields across seven Western states and two in Mexico. Scientists say the only way forward is to rein in demands on the river’s water to match its decline.
With the river’s infrastructure able to cushion against some of the immediate effects, what manifests is a slow-moving crisis. Water managers, farmers and city leaders clearly see the coming challenges, but haven’t yet been forced to drastically change their uses, always hoping for another wet year to stave off the inevitable.
But with its two biggest buckets -- Lakes Powell and Mead -- at or below 35% of capacity, and projected to decline even further, a reckoning over the West’s water use appears closer on the horizon.
Extremely dry conditions like the region is experiencing in 2021 make clear that the Colorado River is currently unable to meet all the demands communities in the Western U.S. have placed on it, and it’s up to its biggest users to decide who has to rely on it less.
A dry year in the headwaters
The Colorado River starts on Colorado’s Western Slope, where father and son Wayne and Brackett Pollard run cattle. Up on a sagebrush-covered hillside, under a shade tree, the two men look down onto the river near Rifle. Their cattle graze on both sides, including on hay fields irrigated by the river’s water.
“Typically, this would be high water and it hasn't really come up at all,” Brackett Pollard said in mid-June. Being a farmer or rancher in the West comes with a list of superlatives this year. He rattled them off: driest, hottest, lowest, worst.
“Last year was considerably dry, maybe the driest we'd seen. And now we're looking even drier,” Brackett said.
“Our springs are starting to dry up, up on the mountain and everywhere,” Wayne added.
The river’s entirety, from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to the U.S.-Mexico border, experienced its driest 12-month period on record from May 2020 to April 2021. Record low levels of soil moisture diminished this past spring’s runoff, locking in water supply shortfalls until at least next winter when all hopes will be for a heavy blanket of snow.
Nearly all of the Upper Colorado River basin is experiencing severe drought or worse. Fishing and recreation closures on some tributaries, like the Dolores, Animas and Yampa Rivers, have started rolling out early as flows dwindle.
This dry spell comes with the usual lack of rain and snow, and the relentless sun, Brackett said. But this summer a hot wind has also arrived, functioning like a giant hair dryer pointed right at his pastures.
“It’s just like sucking the moisture out even more so,” Brackett said.
Food for cattle depends on the availability of water. The Pollards grow hay to supplement their livestock, and rely on grazing permits on public land. This summer, with viable ground more limited due to drought, they decided to put cattle on irrigated land that would normally be used to grow hay for later in the season. That’s a loss in income they’ll have to absorb.
“Now that we're in our second consecutive year of severe drought, we don't have much of a buffer anymore,” Brackett said.
The choice for many ranchers is stark: find more expensive feed or sell the herd.
“I don't like fighting drought. There's nothing you can do about it,” Wayne said.
Livestock sale barns across the West are busy, as ranchers look to offload hungry cattle they’re unable to feed without incurring even steeper costs. The Pollards plan to sell about half of their cows by this fall.
“I think it takes a mental toll,” Brackett said. “There have certainly been times where you just can't believe how hot and how dry it is. And then on top of that it hasn't rained in a month. And then you start to pile the wind on and you feel like you can't get a break.”
“You’re looking at a serious loss of equity in rural America, in the rural West,” he said.
Lake Powell to hit historic low
About 250 miles downstream from the Pollards’ property, the Colorado River becomes a massive reservoir, Lake Powell.
The reservoir fills Glen Canyon, a maze of red rock on the Colorado Plateau. A lack of snowpack, warming temperatures in the Rocky Mountains upstream and relentless demands from agriculture and cities downstream are pushing the lake toward its lowest point since it was built in the 1960s.
Sheri Facinelli and her husband Randy Redford of Arvada, Colo. vacation at the recreation hot spot each year. A white bathtub ring looms high above the boats that rip across its surface.
The record low level means Glen Canyon Dam is already generating less hydroelectric power. It also forces boaters to be more aware of their surroundings — geologic features long kept underwater are emerging as the reservoir declines to a new historic low.
“Places where you’ve boated for 20 years and gone flying over, all of a sudden there's big islands and rocks,” Facinelli said as she veered the couple’s speedboat into a narrow, winding side canyon.
“Plus as the canyons get narrower, then you’ve got to worry about traffic more. It’s more nerve-wracking,” she said.
An estimated 4.4 million people visited in 2019, spending more than $420 million in nearby communities. But this year, several high-traffic paved boat ramps no longer reach the water. Current forecasts project Lake Powell to drop another 45 feet before next summer.
“You've got the same number of visitors using fewer launch ramps,” Facinelli said. “So you're going to have longer lines, shorter tempers.”
Facinelli and her husband married on a Lake Powell houseboat in 2001, in a “black bathing suit ceremony.” The two celebrate their anniversary at the reservoir each September, and have seen it rise and fall during the past two decades of variable snowpack.
They intend to continue the tradition this September, with another trip planned to their houseboat. It’s unclear if the lake will be high enough then to launch their speedboat from the paved ramp at the remote Hall’s Crossing Marina.
“This lake is all about water for the downstream states, for power generation and water for agriculture,” Facinelli said. “Those of us who love this lake for recreation, in the big scheme of things, we're a byproduct or an afterthought.”
To conserve and grow, cities target lawns
Further downstream, in a Las Vegas gated community, the Colorado River’s water spurts out of a sprinkler and onto manicured grass. It’s the water spilling off the lawn and into the street that catches the eye of Devyn Choltko, water waste investigator.
She pulls up in a car emblazoned with “Water Patrol” in block letters on its side, and yellow flashing lights affixed to the roof.
“There’s too much water leaving the property at the moment,” Choltko said. “So we're going to get out of the car, throw our lights on and document the ‘spray and flow violation,’ is what we call it.”
Choltko works for the Las Vegas Valley Water District. Her phone captures a video of the offending sprinklers. She zooms in on the water leaving the property and emptying into a storm drain, narrating what she’s seeing. With the video logged as evidence, this gated community will earn an $80 fine for its wasteful watering, Choltko said. Each subsequent fine will double.
Grass like this recently got a death sentence. This year, the Nevada legislature voted to declare so-called “non-functional turf” in the Las Vegas area illegal. If a lawn is purely ornamental, like in a traffic circle, a median, at the entrance of a business park, or lining the landscaping of a high-end development, it has to go. Residential lawns, public parks and sports fields are exempt.
“If people aren't walking on it and recreating on it, that's a water use that this community can no longer afford,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Pellegrino’s agency projects that nearly 4,000 acres of turf in the Las Vegas valley will be ripped out over the next five years.
“We live in a desert,” Pellegrino said. “We live in the driest metropolitan area in the United States, less than four inches of rain a year. It's probably stuff that never should have been put in to begin with.”
Las Vegas already restricts lawns in new developments and pays existing homeowners to replace their yards. Unlike the water used for showers, toilets and dishwashers, which is treated and returned to the river, outdoor irrigation is a loss in the eyes of water officials.
“We are in a desert and grass is one of those high water users,” Choltko said.
The Las Vegas area has kept growing during the drought, adding 315,000 people to Clark County, Nevada in the last decade alone. As the river keeps shrinking, demands in southwestern cities and farms have to shrink too, otherwise the whole system gets drained.
The coming shortage declaration, tied to the level of the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, means another round of steep cuts to water supplies, falling the hardest on Arizona farmers who rely on the Central Arizona Project. If Mead keeps dropping, further reductions are coming to more Arizona users, Nevada, California and Mexico.
Big questions on the horizon
Near the river’s end, Jordan Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma-Quechan Indian Tribe stood on its banks, looking out on what used to be the start of the river’s expansive delta, now a narrow channel.
“This used to be the riverbed,” he said of the sandy outcropping. “Where we're standing today, if this was to be water, this would be all covered with shrubbery, willows and cottonwood.”
Not far upstream, water is drawn off to serve customers in Los Angeles and Phoenix and to irrigate crops in California and Arizona. The tribe’s agricultural holdings also receive irrigation water from the Colorado River. The region is well-known for its winter greens, keeping salad plates full during the country’s coldest months.
“That's why I always tease everybody from back east. I'm like, ‘When you're eating a salad in December, thank us, because that's where it's coming from,’” said tribal council member Charles Escalanti.
The tribe’s share of the Colorado is one small piece of a century-long list of legal agreements and court cases to manage and share the highly variable river. The 1922 Colorado River Compact acts as the foundation to a complex legal scaffolding. The document initially divided up the river’s water. But Joaquin says over the nearly 100 years people have attempted to harness the river with massive dams and diversions, tribes have been largely excluded from decision-making.
“When tribes were consulted, if that's what they call it, it's at the very end. Decisions were already made,” Joaquin said.
The entire watershed is gearing up for a new round of policy negotiations. Guidelines for river management first agreed to in 2007 are due for an update, which has opened the door for those historically marginalized to call for their place in river management.
Just within the last several years, watershed politics have shifted, Escalanti said. Some federal and state leaders have become more open to different perspectives, while tribal stakeholders have felt empowered to claim their seat.
“We want them to listen to us. We want them to see that we're there. We want them to notice that, ‘hey, the natives are showing up now. They have real issues and they have real concerns and they have strength and they have power,’” Escalanti said.
New federal leaders are likely to be more receptive to tribal concerns on the river as well. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has said tribal consultation will be a priority across her agency. At a March meeting with tribal leaders across the basin, the department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said, “we need tribes to be at the table” for the renegotiation.
The Colorado River basin is home to 29 federally-recognized tribes, of which 10 hold a significant amount of water rights. In crafting the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, two tribes in Arizona became integral to clinching a deal in that state. Coming up with priorities for a coalition of tribes, with varying economies, water needs and cultural values will be a challenge, Escalanti said. Compare it to a large family, he said.
“If I asked you, ‘What does everybody want?’ It's not going to be so simple to come up with one answer,” Escalanti said.
Because of this year’s historic lows in the river’s largest reservoirs, perennial questions are being made more urgent. Can the watershed adapt to climate change? How will everyone learn to get by with less? And, Joaquin said, how can river management be made more inclusive?
“Water is very important to us. Water is sacred to us,” he said. “So the most meaningful thing is to be part of the negotiation at the table, not the back table, not the side table, but at the table of discussion.”
Because the answers to those questions will shape life in the West for everyone who depends on the Colorado River for decades to come.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.