To serve the needs of human populations, for the last decade the Colorado River has been completely drained dry by the time it reaches the Sea of Cortez. While the destruction of the river is a clear and obvious consequence of our actions, additional threats to the Colorado River - from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, all the way to its dry destiny near the Sea of Cortez - are increasing with each tick of the clock.
Climate change is looming, population growth is escalating, more dams and diversions are planned, species are on the brink of extinction, oil/gas/mineral exploration near the river is increasing, and invasive species are continuing their march up and down the river and its tributaries.
The Save the Colorado campaign won't be able to address all of these threats, but it's important to tell the whole story and begin the critical work of restoration.
A changing climate caused the rapid build-up of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere will likely have profound impacts on the Colorado River basin. Warmer weather, less snow, a reduction in stream runoff, and changed timing of spring runoff are all likely impacts. Recent modeling suggests that a 10% reduction in stream runoff may cause delivery shortages in Las Vegas 58% of the time by the year 2050. A more recent study by the Bureau of Reclamation suggests that in as little as 2 years, there is a 20% chance that Lake Mead's water level could drop too low to produce electricity or supply enough water to Las Vegas.
Water supplies to the entire basin may be impacted by climate change. Recent studies by the State of Colorado suggest that if climate change forecasts come true, water providers in Colorado may use all of water available to them through their legal allocation, thus reducing the amount of water that flows downstream for other cities as well as for the environment. Cities and water districts up and down the basin - as well as the U.S. Department of Interior - are spending vast amounts of money trying to understand and predict the extent and impacts of climate change on the Colorado River.
Approximately 30 million people currently live in the Colorado River basin and depend on its water. Each of those people places a "demand" on the water in the basin. The average person in the Colorado River basin uses about 200 gallons of water per day - in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and in their yards. Along the Front Range of Colorado, approximately 30% of all water is used for 3 months in the summer to keep lawns green; that percentage may be even higher in the desert landscapes of Arizona and southern California.
Human populations are expected to continue to grow in the Colorado River basin. Compared to population numbers in 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau expects an average of a 53% increase in population in the year 2030 in the Colorado River basin states. This new population growth will all require new and more water, and place even more demand on the Colorado River and its tributaries. Due to population growth, demand for water in the Colorado River basin has already outstripped supply - this trend is expected to continue in the future as water supplies decrease (due to drought and climate change), and population increases.
Water is taken out of the Colorado River through a phenomenal network of dams, reservoirs, and diversions. Over 100 dams have been built on the Colorado River and its tributaries for flood control, to create hydroelectricity, to store agricultural and municipal water, and to harness the river's widely varying flows to generate a steady water supply for people and crops. Despite the widespread benefits of dams and reservoirs, over-allocation and drought have placed significant stress on storage. The water levels of the river's two largest reservoirs - Mead and Powell, stored behindy Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams - have dropped significantly in recent years. Although dams and reservoirs provide enormous benefits for human populations, they are also threats to water supplies - over 10% of the flow in the Colorado River evaporates every year in reservoirs along its path.
The Colorado River is often called one of the most controlled and plumbed rivers on the planet. In addition, more plumbing, and dams, and diversions are planned, especially in the upper basin in Colorado. Currently multiple projects are being proposed along the Front Range of Colorado that would remove over 300,000 acre feet of new water from the Colorado River and its tributaries - all of this would be removed even before the river reaches Lakes Powell and Mead. Currently, more water is requested from the river than the river can provide, and thus the river has been drained dry for the last decade before it reaches the Sea of Cortez.
The Colorado River was originally home to an array of plant and animal species naturally fitted to its environment. Due to the actions of humans, some of these species are endangered and on the brink of extinction. The Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail are endangered fish species that once thrived in the Colorado River system. These fish are endangered because of two types of habitat alterations - water developments (dams, reservoirs, diversions) and introductions of non-native fish. Over a hundred of dams, diversions, and other barriers have been constructed: river flows have been cut by a third or more, and in some places the river is completely dried up: and more than 40 species of non-native fish have been introduced in the upper Colorado River basin. A huge coalition of agencies and organizations came together in 1988 to recover endangered Colorado River basin fish. Those coalitions have spent over $200 million trying to save and recover the endangered fish with limited success so far - none of the fish have yet been removed from the federal Endangered Species list.
Protecting endangered species in the Colorado River will continue to be an expensive and time-consuming task. More proposed dams and diversions, climate change, and the proliferation of non-native fish and other species will make recovery efforts harder and less likely to succeed. While the simple solutions of "getting more water in the river, and removing some dams" could solve the problem, those solutions face extraordinary economic and political roadblocks.
The Colorado River basin has as many resources below ground as it does above ground. These underground resources lure countless extraction-based companies near the river every year in search of uranium, oil, natural gas, and oil shale. As energy prices have risen in the last decade, the demand for underground resources has ignited a flurry of claims, boreholes, and extraction proposals. Uranium mining is one of the biggest threats facing the Colorado River - 395 uranium mining claims currently exist along the river corridor; another 800 pending new claims are in the works.
Oil and gas drilling, as well as the potential for oil shale development, are additional major concerns for the river. Water pollution, and the use of water in these extraction efforts, would place extraordinary demands on Colorado River and the ecosystems surrounding it. Oil shale extraction, in particular, proposes to use vast quantities of water - if such extraction would occur on a widespread basis in western Colorado and southern Utah, it would fundamentally change the water supply availability for the entire Southwestern U.S. Abandoned mines and tailings are an additional concern - in Utah, abandoned uranium mines and tailings lay alongside the Colorado River seemingly just waiting for the next major flood to wash them away and destroy the river's ecosystem.
An ecosystem like the Colorado River evolved over thousands of years and includes myriad species adapted to that specific environment. However, through accidental and purposeful actions of humans, non-native species have been introduced in the ecosystem. Some of those non-native species have flourished, to the detriment of native species and to the river itself. As two examples:
- Non-native fish species such as trout actually eat native endangered species like the humpback chub. This predation by non-native trout is one of the reasons why humpback chub recovery efforts have faltered and stalled.
- Tamarisk, a non-native bush, was introduced to stabilize banks along the river, but ended up taking over miles of river bank, using extraordinary amounts of water, and changing the soil chemistry of the native riverbank thus pushing out native vegetation and wildlife.
Other non-native species that have had a negative impact on the river and the ecosystem includes giant cane, zeebra and quagga mussels, wild pigs, burros, Russian olives, and cheat grass are examples of accidental releases. Land and water managers have spent many millions of dollars trying to control invasive species impacts - expenditures are ongoing for the foreseeable future.
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