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Revered and manipulated, cherished and disregarded, the Colorado is a lifeline and an overallocated system exacerbated by drought. Explore this defining moment on the Colorado, fact check some assumptions about the river, and read about ways that Colorado is taking proactive steps to shore up contingency plans for water shortage. Flip through or download the issue here

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A Defining Moment on the Colorado River

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A partially frozen Colorado River pictured in January 2009 cuts through Castle Valley, Utah.
Credit: Pete McBride


By Jerd Smith

Time on the ancient Colorado River has stretched out for the people along its banks in spans so long it may as well have been infinite.

From Colorado to Mexico, to everyone from the tribes who reared their children in its mountain strongholds and fragile deserts to the modern city dwellers who have captured its vital flows in massive reservoirs and pipelines, the river's troubled future has always seemed decades, if not centuries, away.

But time is speeding up in ways few modern-day water planners ever imagined. As a 16-year drought widely believed to be among the worst in 1,200 years shows little sign of easing, Lake Powell and Lake Mead—filled nearly to the brim in 2000—are now collectively less than half full and continue to fall, jeopardizing their ability to provide water to cities and farms, as well as to generate power, fund care for endangered fish, and support recreation economies worth billions of dollars each year.

Trouble is no longer decades or centuries away. Now, it could be perhaps a year or two away. "It's come sooner than anyone anticipated and more significantly than anyone anticipated," says Jim Lochhead, manager of Denver Water, the largest municipal water utility in Colorado. Even from the eastern side of the Continental Divide, opposite where the river begins its westward journey, the agency relies on the Colorado River for half its drinking water. "We are entering uncharted territory."

Read more: A Defining Moment on the Colorado River

Bound by a River

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Perry Cabot measures the effect of reduced irrigation on farm fields on Colorado's Western Slope. The 2015 irrigation
season was the first under Cabot's three-year researh grant, the findings of which could 
guide the establishment of
water banks.

Credit: Barton Glasser

The quest to find solutions on the Colorado River may require that each state and nation, water user and conservation group stand together for the benefit of all. So, are we in this together?

By Jerd Smith

On a hot summer evening in July 2015, Perry Cabot is driving on a country highway outside Montrose. He’s just finished another day of fieldwork and is heading back to his office in Grand Junction, on Colorado’s sparsely populated Western Slope.

Cabot is an engineer and a scientist. Working for the Colorado Water Institute and Colorado State University Extension, his quest over the next several years is to enumerate a very important set of trends. If he succeeds, he will contribute critical information to the discussion among a growing cadre of people in the Colorado River Basin, including farmers, environmentalists, engineers, hydrologists, plant and fish experts, policy makers and politicians. All are helping lead the way into a 21st-century world where the river delivers its own budget and everyone, from the farmers outside Montrose to the city folk in Los Angeles, is able to live with what it has to offer.

That means doing more with less, and Cabot is all about that. He and hundreds of experts across the nine states (two in Mexico) that make up the basin know that the days when the river could be overused are over. His challenge is to establish the numbers that show how much water can be conserved in any given farm field, while maintaining a positive economic yield for farmers. Though some changes to state water law would likely be required first, the conserved water could in theory be transferred somewhere else in the river basin to help make up a system-wide shortfall expected to reach millions of acre-feet per year by 2060, while at the same time creating ecologic benefits in vulnerable river stretches and providing increased security against interstate compact-induced shortages.

Read more: Bound by a River

To Serve and Extend

 Credit: Pete McBride

Through administrative wrangling, risk assessment and contingency planning, Colorado is working to avoid the day—or brace for its arrival—when Colorado River water comes up short.

By Caitlin Coleman

Last winter, Colorado was in the news for uttering fighting words. Headlines like “Concerns over Colorado decision to keep all its river water” ran along the TV screen. At the time, an Associated Press story used a quote from Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund making it sound like Colorado was flexing its muscle to prevent Colorado River water from flowing down to drought-stricken California. That aggressive, Colorado-centric stance was never Eklund’s intention.



The Southwest is tightly bound together by the vital blue cord of the Colorado River, which links the seven states and Mexico. “We’re joined at the hip,” Eklund says. In addition to his position with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Eklund serves as Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission. The commission, created by the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact, consists of five commissioners, one from each of the four Upper Colorado River Division states and one appointed by the federal government. It coordinates among the Upper Division states and works with the Lower Division on concerns that involve all river users, including ways to cope with drought and low reservoir levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. “This is kind of one of those ‘we all hang together or we all hang separately’ deals,” says Eklund.


For most states in the Colorado River Basin, the river is so essential that to “hang separately” is not an option. “If we’re not cooperating, the negative effects could just propagate like waves and we’d all be in a difficult position,” says Eric Millis, Utah’s Upper Colorado River commissioner and director of Utah’s Division of Water Resources.


Read more: To Serve and Extend


It flows, but does it hold water?

By Nelson Harvey

To make conventional wisdom, take a grain of truth, lard it with a few misconceptions and throw in a preconceived notion or two. The result is the kind of simplistic belief that abounds in discussions of the Colorado River Basin, undergirding the idea that there is a silver-bullet solution for our water supply woes, that simply tearing up lawns, outlasting drought or building a pipeline will resolve our water problems. These notions, while easily bandied about at the dinner table, are hardly strong enough to inform a water policy, and close examination proves them false, or at least incomplete. With that in mind, we’ve set out to debunk six common myths about the Colorado River. Flowing through all of them is the most insidious myth of all: that the looming water shortages have any single cause, or any single solution.


Myth #1: We can shrug off the impacts to agriculture as municipalities work to acquire the water they need.


More than 70 percent: That’s how much of the Colorado River agriculture requires every year, making the sector an easy target for cities seeking to slake the thirst of growing populations. Yet if the “buy and dry” of agricultural land intensifies in the face of drought and growth, could it jeopardize food security?


According to a 2013 study by the Pacific Institute, a water policy nonprofit, about 15 percent of the nation’s food is grown with Colorado River water. Irrigated pasture, alfalfa and other feed for livestock occupy 60 percent of the basin’s agricultural acreage, while a smaller fraction—around 8 percent—is used to grow vegetables in places like California’s Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley and Yuma, Arizona. Those vegetables fill an important niche, accounting for up to two-thirds of the produce on grocery store shelves every winter, according to the Imperial County Farm Bureau.

Read more: Mythbusters


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