Colorado river

The Water Wars: Can The Feds Save The Colorado River?

The Colorado River is disappearing. Once a statement so absurd it only belonged in science fiction, reality is dawning on the arid American Southwest. If the river dries, economic ruin and destroyed lives will follow. Is a plan by the Federal Government the best hope for a solution?

What’s Happening?

The Colorado River is a lifeline to 40 million people and central to a multi-state battle over who gets to use its dwindling water. The problem is simple, the river is losing water year over year and cities that depend on it are growing. If a deal between the states using the water isn’t reached, the federal government will step in.

Recently, the Feds released a draft plan outlining how the Army Corps of Engineers will force water cuts between California, Arizona, and Nevada. The states have until the end of May to approve the plan or come up with another one. If no solution is reached, millions of people in arid climates will run out of access to reliable water.

A Climate Change Crisis

Most land west of the Great Plains relies on storms generated in the Pacific Ocean. This west-to-east trend of moisture is critical for human life. Without it, the region's snowpack and few rivers can’t support human life. The problem is that climate change adds chaos to this system.

Imagine a firehose pumped up to full pressure with no one holding it; that’s climate change in the West. Occasionally, the firehose pummels one area too much (like California this winter). But, more often, it misses areas completely.

Over the last few decades, the bad years have been really bad, which affects the rivers in the region. This year, the Colorado River has been in the crosshairs.

What Are The Issues On The Colorado River?

  • Climate change. Despite a great winter with phenomenal pow, the river’s output has been declining for decades. That means less water.
  • Cities are relying more on the declining river because they’re growing. Demand is oustripping a dwindling supply.
  • Geography. The Colorado River is a snowmelt-supported waterway that cuts across vast, arid terrain. Alternative water sources are few and far between. 
  • Water rights. Generally, the oldest claim gets rights. That means California’s water rights, which date back centuries, trump others. If nothing changes, Arizona and southern Nevada won’t get enough water to support their cities. 
  • Hubris and lack of foresight. Cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Anglers are all in environments that cannot support their populations. So, they draw water from elsewhere. These areas do not have a plan for a water-reduced future.
  • Lack of compromise. California, Arizona, and Nevada have been unable to come up with a way to cut water.

How Bad Is It?

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the biggest reservoirs on the river, are so low there’s a risk of dead pool. A dead pool means the water level is too low to flow through the lake. When water doesn’t flow, it can’t travel to areas downriver that need it. The river below a dead pool would essentially dry up.

Why Only California, Arizona, And Nevada?

Other states also draw water from the Colorado River. However, they aren’t as affected because they are close to the snowpack fueling the river or have alternative water sources.

Colorado and New Mexico have other rivers and mountain snowmelt. In Utah, they have the Great Salt Lake and mountain snowmelt. However, the rapidly receding Great Salt Lake has become another Water War flashpoint.

What’s The Feds Plan?

The proposal offered by the government lays out three possible scenarios. 

  • No action, which would lead to continued deterioration of conditions.
  • Alternative 1, which dictates water shortages based on priority of water rights. In this scenario, California would benefit but Arizona and Southern Nevada wouldn’t have enough to sustain their populations.
  • Alternative 2, even, percentage based water cuts across all three states, tied to their overall allotment. That allotment is 4.4 million acre-feet of water per year for California, 300,000 for Nevada and 2.8 million for Arizona. The cuts would be most dramatic in California because they draw the most water.

Alternative 2 is the most likely solution. Water cuts would be most severe in California but none of the states would suffer catastrophic reductions.


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*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.