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The Great River of the West touches its limits: Will the Colorado dry up? – Yale Environment 360

The beginning of the mighty Colorado River on the western slope of Rocky Mountain National Park is modest. A large swamp creates a small stream of a stream at the La Poudre Pass and thus begins the long, labyrinthine journey of 1,450 miles along one of the great waterways of America.

A few miles later, in the Kawuneeche Valley in the Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado River Trail allows walkers to walk along its course and, even during low tide, even jump over it. This valley is where the budding river falls prey to its first diversion – 30 percent of its water is taken before it reaches the stream to irrigate far fields.

The Never Summer Mountains tower over the valley to the west. Over the top of these glacier-etched peaks is the Grand Ditch, an incision visible just above the tree line. The ditch collects water as the snow melts and, because it is higher in height than La Poudre Pass, it takes 14 miles back across the Continental Divide, where it empties into the upper reaches of the Cache La Poudre, which continues to lucerne and row of farmers in eastern Colorado. Hand dug in the late 19th century with shovels and pickaxes by Japanese crews, it was the first trans-basin diversion of the Colorado.

The upper course of the Colorado River lies in a swampy meadow just inside the northern boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park at La Poudre Pass, Colorado.

The upper course of the Colorado River lies in a swampy meadow in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

There will be many more trans-basin diversions of water from the west side of the gorge to the east. That's because 80 percent of the water that falls as snow in the Rockies drains to the west, while 80 percent of the population lives on the east side of the gorge.

The Colorado River gathers momentum in the west of Colorado, sea green and absorbs a lot of steam in its confluence with the rivers Fraser, Eagle and Gunnison. As it leaves Colorado and flows through Utah, it joins forces with the Green River, a major tributary that has its origins in the declining glaciers above Wyoming's Wind River Mountains, the second largest glacier field in the lower 48 states.

The now loaded with sediments Colorado (too thick to drink, too thin to plow & # 39; was the adage about such rivers) is here reddish and deserves its name – Colorado means reddish & # 39; . It runs in a south-westerly direction through the smooth rock. from Utah and northern Arizona, including its spectacular ride through the nearly 280-mile-long Grand Canyon, and then to Las Vegas, where it makes a sharp turn to the south, first forming the border between Nevada and Arizona and then the border of California and Arizona until it reaches the Mexican border. There, the Morelos dam – half of it in Mexico and half in the United States – captures the last drops of the Colorado stream and sends it to Mexican farmers to irrigate alfalfa, cotton and asparagus, as well as Mexicali, Tecate and other towns and villages with water.

Although there are green fields south of the border here, there are costs involved. The vast Colorado River Delta – once a bird- and wildlife-rich oasis fed by the river that Aldo Leopold described as a land of "one hundred green lagoons" – is begging for water. And there is no drop left to flow to the historic finish line in the Gulf of California, where the Colorado was empty long ago.

The Colorado flows 1450 from the Colorado source to the southwest, and ends just outside the Gulf of California.

The Colorado flows 1450 from the Colorado source to the southwest, and ends just outside the Gulf of California.
Card by David Lindroth

Nature has actually traveled a short distance along the 1450 mile Colorado. In order to support human life in the desert and in the vicinity of the desert through which it flows, the river is one of the most heavily constructed waterways in the world. Along the route, water is stored and transferred, routed and pumped, with a multi-billion dollar plumbing system – a "Cadillac desert", as Marc Reisner called it in the title of his 1986 historical book. There are 15 large dams on the main trunk of the river and hundreds more on the tributaries.

However, the age of tapping on the Colorado River is coming to an end. This muddy river is one of the most controversial in the country – and grows even more every day. It serves about 40 million people, and much more of the water is promised to users than flows between banks – even in the best water years. And it is estimated that by 2050 millions more people will be added to the population served by the Colorado.

The hard lesson that is learned is that even with the extensive sanitary system of the Colorado, nature can not be defied. If the over-allotment of the river was not too difficult, the best current years seem to lie behind it. The Colorado basin has been trapped since 2000 in the grip of an almost ruthless drought and the two major water reserves on the river – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – are at all lows. An officially announced crisis can be imminent in the coming months.

Some scientists think that long-term dehydration due to climate change occurs, a permanent dehydration of the West.

Meanwhile, the Lower Basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada – despite many discussions have not been able to come up with a drought emergency plan to keep the water in Lake Mead below levels that would cause a crisis and lead to mandatory cuts in water. And if the states do not agree on a plan by the end of this month, the US Bureau for Advertising Commissioner Brenda Burman says she will intervene and take tough decisions.

There are big, existential questions for the 40 million people who depend on the river – there is simply not enough water for all who depend on it, and there will probably be even less water soon.

Most of the water in the Colorado comes from snow falling into the Rockies and slowly being released, a natural reservoir that gradually spreads its abundance for months. But since 2000, the Colorado basin has been trapped in what, according to experts, is a long-term drought aggravated by climate change, the most severe drought in the past 1250 years, showing tree ring data. Snowfall since 2000 is vague – last year it was only two thirds of the normal, coupled with its record low. At warmer temperatures more precipitation comes as rain, which runs away quickly instead of being stored as mountain snow. Many water experts are very concerned about the increasing water shortage due to this combination of over-allotment and decreasing supply.

Water levels in Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam in Nevada have reached a low point. If the levels continue to drop, Phoenix and other places south of the dam would not get Colorado River water.

Water levels in Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam in Nevada have reached a low point.

There are tree-ring data to show that more than a decadal mega-drought has occurred, one that lasted more than half a century in the time of the Roman empire. The term drought, however, means that one day the water shortage will be over. Some scientists think that long-term climate-based desiccation can occur, a permanent dehydration of the West. That makes the uncertainty of the water in the Colorado out of the charts. Although they do not exclude all hope, experts have worried terms like & # 39; & # 39; and & # 39; Worry & # 39; given up and using routinely words like & # 39; horrible & # 39; and & # 39; eng & # 39 ;.

"These conditions could mean a lot less water in the river," said Jonathan Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist at the University of Michigan who has extensively studied the impact of the climate on the Colorado River. "We have seen decreases in the 20 per cent flow, but it can be up to 50 per cent or worse later in this century."

Even in conservative areas with rocky ridges, those who use the Colorado water say that they already see things they have never seen before – this year officials in Colorado have cut off irrigation facilities on the Yampa River, a tributary of the Green. and recreation had to be stopped for example – and have reluctantly believed that & # 39; something is wrong with the climate & # 39 ;.

If water defenses are required, some states will be obliged to send others their assigned water, whether they have it or not.

As the authors of a 2015 study on the climate-future of the region put it: "Our results point to a remarkably drier future that far exceeds the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America, conditions that significant challenge for adaptation. "

So conventions and meetings and papers have been written by the Colorado Basin, looking for a pleasant future for a river in crisis. One of the major unevennesses in an incredibly complex debate is this: in 1922 California blossomed and helped it to an increasing part of the water, while other states grew much slower. The other basin countries wanted to secure their share before California could swallow it up and, with guidance from the then Trade Minister Herbert Hoover, created a Colorado River Compact that distributed more than 15 million acre-feet of water – 7.5 million to the Upper Basin States and same amount to the Lower Basin states.

It is now known that this law of the river was a product of exaggerated exuberance, a wrong starting point based on unrealistic projections, because it had been drawn in centuries in one of the wettest periods of the river. Yet the actual amount distributed over the states is more than 16 million acre-feet, 1.2 million acre-feet above the too optimistic distribution. These extravagant numbers are ingrained in the system, officially officially a & # 39; structural deficit & # 39 ;.

St. George, Utah has grown rapidly, with subdivisions and golf courses that push into the desert. The population has grown from 20,000 to 150,000 over the past 20 years.

St. George, Utah, flourishes, with subdivisions and golf courses that push into the desert.

This winter is make or break for the short term. There is a crisis going on – low flows have been observed last summer and autumn. Another winter with little snow can alleviate the slump of a major crisis – an escalating crescendo of emergency situations ending in a "compact call" when the lower pelvic countries summon the upper basin countries to send them their legally mandated water allocation – whether they have it to spare or not. All players along the river like to play & # 39; water safety & # 39 ;, a frequently heard term in the region these days.

Cities of Tucson, Arizona, St. George, Utah, Denver are booming and need more water to keep growing. Municipal officials throughout the area are worried about the future of their growth economy at a time of increasing probability of limits.

Another point of friction is the fact that the Upper Basin states – Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – still have "paper water", which means that they have been given water from the compact 1922, which they have not yet removed from the river. have achieved. And although many experts say that no new straws should be dipped into the river to suck more water out, even if a state is entitled to it, there are plans to do exactly that, creating even more struggle and quarreling.

Speculators quietly purchase farms with water rights and keep them for the day that the price of water rises.

The future of farms and farms that depend on the water in the Colorado River is the most uncertain. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the Colorado stream to irrigate 6 million acres of crops, the majority of which is alfalfa grown to feed cattle; cities use only 10 percent. Although the rights of agriculture are high – it made the first claims and therefore, according to the law, it is the last one to lose its water in a crisis – if it becomes difficult and cities do not get water anymore, political and economic power would make the millions to benefit people. people who live there. In that case, agriculture would lose part of its allotment, either voluntarily or unintentionally.

"You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see pressure on your water," said Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, a group of irrigation companies in western Colorado trying to adapt to a new Age. "We have a target on our back." Dewatering agriculture can not only lead to the buying and drying of farms, but also to the collapse of many small towns of which raison d & # 39; être is growing food.

And then there is the recreation industry, a $ 26 billion share of the economy of the Colorado River. Last year, raft companies had to shorten their season and reduce the number of trips on the river due to the reduced flows.

Meanwhile, speculators and investors have ventured into this complex "Chinatown" -like scenario and are playing a quiet but growing role. Hedge funds and other interests, a variety of slurry capitalists, quietly buy farms with water rights and keep them for the day that things become more acute and the price of an acre-foot water rises.

The Colorado flows through Castle Valley, near Moab, Utah.

The Colorado flows through Castle Valley, near Moab, Utah.

Finally, the natural features of the Colorado River. The needs of fish, wildlife and native flora have always been below the priority list, lost to the needs of thriving cities and thirsty crops. That is changing, as a growing number of people and organizations are working on a future for a more natural river – from the sandy beaches of the Grand Canyon, to the endangered fish along the river, to the birds and jaguars of the Colorado River Delta. Mexico.

The bill for a century of over-optimism about what the river can offer is coming. How the states will live in their shrinking water budget naturally depends on how heavy the drought and drying process of the West is. But whatever the climate scenario is, there is a lot of pain and radical adjustment in the store, from conservation to large-scale reuse of water, to stopping farming and farms, and perhaps ending some ways of living. In the worst case, if the reservoirs ever hit "dead pool" – when the levels become too low to allow the water to escape – many people in the region can become climate refugees.

"I hate to use the word dire because it does not do justice to the well-meaning people and problem-solvers that exist in the basin, but I would say it's very serious," said Brad Udall, a senior scientist at the Colorado Water Institute. "Climate change is unquantifiable and brings risks to life and the economy that need to be tackled – it's a really tricky problem."


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