Save the Colorado, an organization dedicated to preserving the Colorado River, declared and celebrated the first Colorado River Day this summer on July 25, and has organized several campaigns for the conservation of this major waterway.
The Colorado River originates in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and flows through Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California (forming the southern borders of the latter two states) before it enters Mexico, where it runs through Baja California to its endpoint in the Mexican state of Sonora. In addition, its tributaries reach New Mexico and Wyoming. Between thirty and forty million people in the southwestern United States and Mexico rely on the Colorado River for water, and the river and its water usage are highly controlled through the use of dams and aqueducts. As the largest source of water in the southwestern desert climate, the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River provides vital agricultural irrigation and urban tap water to this region and allows the area to produce hydroelectric power. The river is also home to wildlife, river ecosystems, natural and architectural spectacles such as the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam, and vacationers who swim and play on the river. The river supports fifteen percent of the country’s crops, 250,000 jobs, and $26 billion of the national economy.
For six million years, the Colorado river emptied into the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), located between the Baja California peninsula and mainland Mexico, but in the 1990s, the river stopped short of the sea. Human consumption of the Colorado River’s water has led to a severe depletion of the river’s resources; in the past ten years, five trillion gallons of Colorado River water has disappeared due to human use. Because Americans consume so much of the river’s water, farmers in Mexico are left with little to irrigate their crops with. Major agricultural companies in the United States drain the river of its water by growing crops that require large amounts of water, and are able to buy the water at much lower prices than citizens pay. Some of the river’s water is lost to the desert heat due to evaporation in the surrounding rocks and sandstone canyons.
Environmentalists have long been concerned about the future of the Colorado River and have wondered whether it is sustainable as a major waterway and provider of essential water services in the southwestern American desert. The population of cities in the Colorado River basin is expected to grow by more than fifty percent by 2030, and with serious effects of drought and climate change getting worse and the water supply lessening, it is uncertain that the river will be able to support the increasing population. Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River and generates hydroelectricity for the metro Las Vegas area, will not be able to provide power to the area’s homes if the water supply drops too low. In addition to losing water, the river is also threatened by pollution from companies that mine its natural resources (such as shale, oil, and uranium).
Save the Colorado is calling on politicians to create a more efficient way to utilize the river’s resources and find a solution to the growing water problems. Noting that increasing the water supply is difficult and expensive, the organization favors increasing efficiency in existing water use. Their petition on Change.org says, “As another drought and an expanding population continue to strain this vital river, utilities and governments are faced with tough decisions on a path forward … In a political environment that is ripe for division, we are happy to report that, as river conservationists and fiscal conservatives, we’re all in the same boat: it’s time to improve the efficiency with which we consume the Colorado River’s water.”
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/squeaks2569/3728715678