Water Rights Along the Colorado River Demand Federal Action

Water Rights Along the Colorado River Demand Federal Action

Across seven US states and some northern parts of Mexico, 40 million people rely on the Colorado River to supply drinking water. But in recent years, the river and its two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are drying due to decades-long mismanagement and climate change. With region-wide water catastrophe looming, this could be the first climate disaster that the US is legally obligated to address. Under existing legal frameworks, including the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the country is required to mandate water usage cuts to combat the drought.

“It’s a crisis that has been a long time in the making,” water policy and governance expert John Fleck told Grid. “We over-allocated the river a century ago … based on the promise of water that wouldn’t have been there in the long run, even without climate change. And climate change has just made that problem worse.”

LA Times: A pulse of water revives the dry Colorado River Delta, June 23, 2022.

ABC: Colorado River named country’s ‘most endangered,’ April 18, 2022.

Now This: The Colorado River Drying Up, Thanks to Climate Change, June 21, 2021.

Why This Matters

Addressing the West’s megadrought and the Colorado River water crisis is no easy task, but it’s also not optional. Scientists say the widespread “aridification” will reshape the entire Southwest, exacerbating the severity of other climate change-related catastrophes, such as wildfires and heatwaves. The drought is also harming the viability of hydropower in the region at a time when eliminating fossil fuels is critical.

Throughout the 23-year-long “Millennium Drought,” water conservation measures have been implemented. But, as climate change worsens, such measures aren’t nearly enough. The current water level in Lake Mead is below 1,050 ft -- 70 feet lower than just two years prior.

CBS: Megadrought in the West threatens energy and water security, May 5, 2022.

CGTN America: A relentless drought on the Colorado River, March 21, 2022.

CNBC: What Is The Future Of Hydropower?, May 28, 2022.

CBS: Climate change elevating risk of dangerous weather, July 25, 2022.

According to the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, each of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River must plan to reduce water usage by 2 to 4 million acre-feet within the year. If states fail to release these plans before the end of next month, the federal government is prepared to step in using emergency authority.

Still, these cuts will only address water shortages in the short term. Experts agree that because around 80% of water use is attributed to agriculture, so most reductions should come from that sector over time. But in order to cut usage to the degree the crisis demands, all sectors in all seven states will have to compromise, posing a major collaborative challenge.

According to Christopher Kuzdas, the water program senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, the issue must be approached with the urgency it demands. “We really don’t have a choice to fail on this,” he stated to Grid. “We’ve got to come together and find a way to manage and govern the system differently under climate change, or there’s going to be catastrophic consequences for the Southwest, and I’m not overstating that.”

Low Water Levels Elsewhere

The Rhine River, one of Europe’s most vital waterways that connects Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, is also low. Intensified by ongoing heatwaves, reduced levels pose both environmental and economic impacts as load-bearing barges will soon face weight restrictions if they cannot pass shallower points, making them less efficient all around.

Lake Mead Time-Lapse, 1984-2022, June 30, 2022.

VICE: 40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River, and Now It's Drying Up, August 14, 2021.

DW: Our drinking water | Is the world drying up?, March 20, 2022.