Essential Paddling Guide: Colorado River’s Flows Threatened By Growing Demands, Drier Climate

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A long-running drought is creating problems in the Colorado River Basin, where there’s not enough water to go around. / NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

“Running on empty” unfortunately is a very apt description of the Colorado River Basin, which long has had its water overcommitted. Today, the vast watershed that stretches from the mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of California and helps nourish some 30 million residents in the Southwest and Mexico is mired in a long-running drought that threatens to dramatically recast the already-arid region.

Major John Wesley Powell warned the government more than a century ago that there wasn’t enough water in this dusty region to sustain sprawling populations. Today that message rings true in oversubscription from municipal, agricultural, and industrial interests, coupled with keen competition among basin states for their allotted shares, hydropower, and tribal commitments. Combined, the demands greatly challenge the Southwest’s environmental needs and recreational desires.

Keeping water in the river system promises to grow even more difficult in the face of proposals to divert water out of the channel to quench the thirst and needs of such cities as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. By 2060, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects that there will be more than a 3-million-acre- foot shortage in the basin.

The nine units of the National Park System that help define the river basin -- Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Curecanti, Arches, Canyonlands, Dinosaur, Glen Canyon, Lake Mead, and Grand Canyon -- have been sculpted through time by the currents of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Today, while the drainage’s slacking waters might not outwardly impact the appearance of these parks, they impact them just the same. Fisheries suffer from reduced currents and dropping reservoirs. River runners see the Green, Yampa, and Colorado rivers changed by the lower flows. Vegetation and wildlife in the parks that rely on the rivers are impacted.

The very force that has created these national parks and which in many cases defines many of them is substantially at risk. The growing recreational uses, as a consequence are at risk as well.

The fate of the Colorado River Basin, and all that rely on it, is vested with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the water draws on the basin. Significantly, BOR and the National Park Service are co-leads in the first environmental impact statement process to consider release protocols at Glen Canyon Dam that will profoundly influence river experiences for the thousands of river runners through the Grand Canyon. A draft management plan is expected to be released for public review by year’s end.

In a bid to at least slow the region’s unabiding thirst on the Colorado River Basin, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southwest Regional Office is working with other stakeholders to identify solutions for environmental and recreational flows.

“The Colorado River, America’s Nile, is a force that has created some of the most iconic landscapes on our planet. Its main stem, reservoirs and tributaries offer unparalleled recreation opportunities,” points out David Nimkin, NPCA’s Southwest Region director. “Over-use, a changing climate and management choices profoundly challenge this remarkable river. People who care about the river and these parks can lend their voices and influence the current public processes that will protect the ecological and recreational values we enjoy.”

Coming next Monday: Asian Carp Just One Aspect Of Non-Native Invasion of Great Lakes