As global warming couples with population growth, one of the core environmental issues which is being addressed with increasing vigour in our post-pandemic society is that of the water emergency. It's a crisis of too little supply and too much demand. And nowhere demonstrates that crisis better than the Colorado River which runs for 2330 kilometers from the Rocky Mountain springs of Northern Colorado, through six other Western US states - Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada - before entering the sea at the Mexican state of Baja California. Or should do as for many decades, more often than not, the river has trickled to an abrupt halt some miles from the coast.
Since 2000 the Colorado has lost 20% of its water levels with environmentalists and conservationists forecasting that the situation will only get worse. The river provides drinking water to approximately 40 million people while in excess of 5 million acres of farmland rely on it for irrigation. The bulk of the USA's winter vegetables are grown using Colorado water while the river basin sustains a $1.4 trillion economy. If the Colorado Basin were an independent country, it would be ranked seventh largest in the world based on economic indicators.
The importance of the river region is not confined to economics however as it is crucial to the preservation of the ecosystem and the wildlife habit of so many rare and endangered species. The Basin also includes nine National Parks and myriad other recreational destinations.
Human intervention into resource preservation was enshrined in legislation exactly 100 years ago with the establishment of the Colorado River Compact, an agreement between the aforementioned seven states on how to manage the river's flow and best share its natural wealth. Integral to this was the construction of dams at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Drought and poor land management are no strangers to the Colorado. A drought which commenced in 1276 and continued into the 1300s forced the indigenous Native American population to abandon their agricultural settlements and the Pueblo cliff dwellings which are such an iconic feature of the West. While a life-changing event for the region's inhabitants of the time, it was a disaster that nature was able to repair.
In stark contrast, the current crisis is one which will require humankind's intervention to ensure that the Colorado remains an artery that can tangibly support those 40 million people who rely on it for their personal, business and recreational use.
A scientific study in 2000 found that river flow on the Colorado was dropping approximately 9% each year, a phenomenon caused in part by the reduction in snow cover which, reflecting the sun's rays, helps prevents aridification. This situation has been exacerbated over the subsequent two decades driven by a declining snowpack where snowmelt occurs earlier in the year and at a much swifter pace than previously. A factor, compounded by drier conditions and stronger winds, is producing a far higher degree of evaporation.
Consequently, since 2000 the region has faced, what has been called the North American megadrought, the driest twenty-two years since 800 AD. The two largest US reservoirs, Lakes Powell and Mead, both of which rely on the Colorado for their water, have seen their capacity steadily declining with Lake Powell dropping to a third of capacity in 2005 and Lake Mead approaching drought trigger emergency levels in 2010. That situation has worsened over the last decade with both reservoirs reaching their lowest ever levels last year and the United States Bureau of Reclamation hypothesizing that there will be no demonstrable rise in the levels of either, this year or next.
While climate change alone would have tested the river's resilience, the human demands placed on it have also risen exponentially with burgeoning metropolises like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tuscon attracting a huge number of new residents. When the megadrought commenced the Las Vegas metropolitan areas population stood at 1,326,00. As drought conditions have intensified that population has rocketed to 2,839,000 today. While it could be argued that this influx, attracted to the region because of the economic and lifestyle opportunities that the Colorado brings, is the biggest factor contributing to the drain on the river's resource, the evidence shows that these urban incomers are among those striving the most to preserve it.
Las Vegas has established a team of water waste investigators to patrol the metropolitan area and engage with the community to educate its citizens on water wastage. Obtaining 90% of its water from the Colorado the city has adopted a particularly stringent sprinkler monitoring programme. While the city's population has increased by 1.5 million over the course of the megadrought, its per capita water usage has dropped by 48 per cent to 110 gallons per day. With the average American family using in excess of 300 gallons per day this partnership between authorities and citizens clearly demonstrates how successful the message of water conservation can be.
While climate change and the ensuing drier, warmer conditions will exacerbate the need for increased water consumption, the city has set itself a highly laudable target of a daily per capita figure of 86 gallons by 2035. While that goal may seem highly ambitious, based on what the city and its citizens have achieved thus far, it's one that is eminently reachable.
While other city authorities throughout the Colorado Basin are implementing their own water monitoring systems it's often individual citizens and often the young who are making a tangible difference on a local, granular level. Colorado College has been ranked first for water conservation out of over 280 colleges and universities.
Running a programme entitled "Synergy" the College allocates two on-campus houses to those students who want to embrace intentional living. This manifests itself in a commitment to use "grey water", a method where shower water is collected in a 5-gallon bucket and then reused to flush toilets. The students also grow their own vegetables in a campus garden thus reducing the need for external produce to be shipped in with all the environmental consequences that bring with it. The faculty have also played their part by installing low-flow showerheads and toilets across the campus, while also making efficiencies to the central heating and cooling system, saving 300 million gallons a year. This collaboration between a sustainably minded faculty and an environmentally minded student body has seen campus water usage reduced by 38%. Many of these are changes that the individual can implement in their own lives and in their own homes, changes that make a tangible difference.
Another group whose voices are finally being heard are those of the 30 Native American tribes whose lands lie in the Colorado Basin. When the Colorado Compact was struck 100 years ago the indigenous peoples were not classed as US citizens. While that wrong has been righted, many feel that the institutional racism which attributed second-class status to them is still prevalent today in the issue of water equality.
A report from the Water and Tribes initiative stated that Native American homes are 19 times more likely to lack a piped water supply than white households. This lack of clean, reliable water was highlighted to stark effect during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the tribes own the rights to approximately a 1/4 of the water in the region, a lack of funding means they have often been unable to implement the infrastructure projects to resolve these inequalities.
This has not deterred a number of tribes from initiating their own programmes to make life-changing differences in their communities. One such tribe, the Southern Utes have the rights to 129,000 acre-feet of federally reserved water per year but only had the capacity to divert 40,600 acre-feet per year. They have recently built a reservoir which serves 500 households and allows them a 30-day reserve instead of the previous one-day reserve. Additionally, it protects their water rights, vulnerable to others who might deem themselves to have greater priority for its use.
Politically the landscape is also changing for the Native American population. When interim drought contingency plans were drawn up in 2007, in advance of the Compact expiring in 2026, the tribes were mainly left out of those negotiations. They have now been promised a seat at the table to give their input as to how they want post Compact arrangements to meet their requirements and best manage this natural resource which flows through their ancestral lands. In March of this year, 20 of the region's tribes held initial talks with US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. While it's a consultation process that's a century overdue the fact that Haaland herself is Native American is a testament to positive societal, as well as environmental, change.
With 70% of the Colorado’s water being used for agricultural purposes, it's often farmers and ranchers who operate at the interface where economics meets the environment who are under the most strain and scrutiny.
Many ranchers and farmers are collaborating with conservationists to try and combat the climate change emergency which is threatening the land that they have worked, in many cases, for countless generations. For the ranching community, the last twenty-two years of drought have hugely impacted freshwater supplies and produced substandard forage which isn't fertile enough for their cattle to feed on. Some ranchers have had to sell off a considerable part of their herd to ensure the livestock that remains have sufficiently fertile land on which to graze.
It's a problem that is however being addressed with some extremely innovative and forward-thinking solutions. One example is ranchers using stones to create artificial riffles, the shallower and faster part of a stream, to increase the flow and enhance irrigation in low water areas. This conservation work has the added impact of improving the fish habitat as when the water cascades over the stones it adds oxygen to the water.
Many are also bringing in drought-resistant plants and forages that require less water and which also help restore the soil on their land. This soil conservation initiative is producing higher quality, more nutritional feed for the livestock and has tangibly improved the environment and habitats.
While replenishing the natural environment is one solution other ranchers have looked to genetic selection to raise cattle that produce more beef with less food. Adapting to the changing climate is an issue that the ranchers of the Colorado Basin are facing in the here and now and one that they are addressing with all the skills and knowledge that they can muster.
Likewise, the region's farmers, some of whom have embraced modern technology, are creating perfectly contoured laser-levelled fields to grow the winter vegetables which make up over 80% of the USA's consumption. This method of precision planting ensures an enhanced irrigation system, whereby any bumps in the ground are eradicated and all the available water reaches and nourishes the roots. While some experts are wary of the longer-term water management implications of certain modern irrigation systems, those farmers who have adopted this solution report it using 50 per cent less water than a traditional sprinkler irrigation system.
Harnessing other new technologies has been an equally effective tool in maximizing the use of an increasingly limited natural resource. This includes the use of state-of-the-art weather data often obtained from drones and satellites together with mobile apps. For those farmers living with the megadrought, new technology is bringing both present-day help and hope for the future.
Finding solutions to the Colorado River water emergency may seem to many an unsolvable problem. However, as can be seen, many are doing just that. Whether it's the urban residents of Las Vegas, college students, the Native American population or the region's farmers and ranchers, all have found ways to best utilize the natural resource they are all interdependent on to survive. These are solutions which however big or small are having a ripple effect across the region, contributing to an overall sense that this limited resource can be managed for the betterment of all who rely on it.
More than that they show the way for the rest of us to address a water crisis which is increasingly impacting large parts of our planet. And the good news is that while some of those solutions require government intervention or expensive technologies, many are those that we can implement at little or no cost in our day-to-day lives.