It is difficult not to think about water when traveling out west. Much of the west is arid, relying on dams, reservoirs and aqueducts for water. The Colorado River runs through seven western states, some of the driest in the country. Between 36 to 40 million people depend on the river for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses. The largest and second largest reservoirs in the US are fed by the Colorado, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, created by the Hoover Dam and the Glenn Canyon Dam. Despite a wet 2017, the past two decades have been extremely dry and as of early September, Lake Powell is about 48% capacity, and Lake Mead is about 38% capacity.
Some argue that these reservoirs may not refill again and suggest that the Glen Canyon Dam should be removed. Flows are expected to decrease by 5 to 20% according to Brad Udall at the University of Colorado. Precipitation patterns will change and higher temperatures will cause more water loss due to evaporation. The large reservoirs, built in the desert, are susceptible to evaporation. Approximately 10% of the annual flow of the Colorado is lost to evaporation from Lake Powell and Lake Mead alone.
There are other problems with water management. In the past, the river has run dry before reaching the sea due to water being diverted for human use. The Colorado River Compact was a water deal passed in 1922, an attempt to share the water. However, the deal overestimated the amount of water in the river; even pre drought conditions were only a third of the flow used to calculate the compact. On top of this, allocation is per person, and since the compact, the population in the west has increased by 800%. Therefore, there is now more water allocated than is actually flowing through it. Water prices have been too
The Colorado is in trouble and something must be done to address this. Millions of people depend on this water. Hydroelectric dams also depend on the river for power. A drought, whether caused by resource mismanagement or climate change, will impact the US food supply, electricity prices, and drinking water access for millions. We must reevaluate the way we manage our water resources and focus on new ways of increasing efficiency in water use.
For more information, see the investigative series done by Pro Publica: “Killing the Colorado”