The Colorado River: dying out by drying out

The Colorado River delta: the river no longer reaches the gulf of Mexico (source)

The Colorado River is the lifeline of the south western united states for many reasons. Firstly each year 40 million people in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California depend on the Colorado river as their primary source of clear drinking water. Secondly 6 million acres of farmland are irrigated with water siphoned from the Colorado river. Thirdly it’s home to 30 endemic fish species and millions of birds. Fourthly he two biggest hydroelectric power plants in the United States, the Hoover and Glen canyon dams, utilize its current to generate 10 billion kilowatt hours annually; That’s enough power to supply 1 million American households. Finally it provides inhabitants of the adjacent states with high recreational utility and income from a tourist industry estimated to be worth 26 billion USD per year. 

The Colorado River and those who depend on it are battling a two decade long crisis; the security of the water supply is being threatened by a historically unrivalled drought. The situation has gotten so bad that nowadays the river doesn’t even reach its estuary in the gulf of Mexico. Scientists estimate that since 2004 the river has lost over 6.5 billion cubic meters of water. 75% of this loss is thought to be from depleted groundwater, stores that will take decades to fill back up to their original levels.  Even more concerning might be that global warming studies find that rising temperatures will reduce the average flow of the river by up to 35%. 

It should come as no shock that, sadly, the causes of the drought are mainly anthropogenic. The primary culprit of the drought is overuse, in 1922 the water supply rights were divided between the seven states, however the amount of available water was overestimated. This inflated number wasn’t really a problem back in the day, but currently with states approaching their allocated maximums, mostly due to population growth, it has become a major issue. 70 percent of the rivers supply is used to sustain agriculture in some of the driest regions of the united states. While the warm temperatures and huge amounts of solar radiance of these regions are prefect for cultivating fruits and vegetables, they also result in large amounts of evapotranspiration.

Large crop circle are irrigated with water from the Colorado River in the Colorado desert (source)

The distribution of the water supply is a major point of controversy, cities currently use about 15 percent of the water supply and that amount is estimated to double by 2060. Due this the increase in city water demand the total supply of the Colorado river is being over exerted, resulting in dropping groundwater levels. This overuse problem is amplified by climate change, the World Economic Forum estimates that temperatures in the region will increase by 5 degrees Celsius, resulting in even higher water consumption by plant, animals and humans alike. Higher temperatures will also negatively impact the amount of snowfall in the rocky mountains, and consequently the influx of meltwater come springtime. 

Yearly water levels of lake mead (source)

A good indicator of how dire the situation has become is that the water level of lake mead, the largest reservoir in the country, is the lowest it has been since the droughts of 1960. If levels were to drop a further 4 meters emergency water regulations decided on in 2007 by the federal government would go into effect. These measure would prompt strict water rationing standards, to prevent this the 7 states have decided to renegotiate their water supply rights and recently they have signed the deal in which they voluntarily reduce their water usage. 

Major cities have started employing various creative incentives to adapt to the drought and promote the sustainable use of water. Las Vegas has put heavy restrictions on how much water can be used to water gardens and has fully banned the installation of new gardens for the foreseeable future. The city of Los Angeles encourages home owners to remove turf from their yards and replace them with more sustainable surfaces with financial incentives. While these are steps in the right direction there is a more fundamental issue, the United States has the highest water usage per capita of the entire world. Largely due to the extremely high, and wasteful, living standards. Large parts of urban areas in California, Nevada, and Arizona, are already covered by luscious green grass where there should be a desert. If there is any chance of adapting to the drought or mitigating its effects the inhabitants of the area will seriously have to reduce their water usage by changing their way of life to be more sustainable.


3 Reasons the Colorado River Could Dry Up. (2019). Retrieved from

Holthaus, E. (2014). Lake Mead: Before and After the Epic Drought. Retrieved from

LADWP Changes Turf Removal Program Guidelines. (2019). Retrieved from

Las Vegas Valley Water District. (2019). Retrieved from

Owen, D. (2017). The Disappearing Colorado River. Retrieved from

Schwartz, J. (2019). Amid 19-Year Drought, States Sign Deal to Conserve Colorado River Water. Retrieved from

Udall, B., & Overpeck, J. (2017). The twenty-first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future. Water Resources Research, 53(3), 2404-2418. doi:10.1002/2016wr019638Xiao,

M., Udall, B., & Lettenmaier, D. P. (2018). On the Causes of Declining Colorado River Streamflows. Water Resources Research,54(9), 6739-6756. doi:10.1029/2018wr023153

7 thoughts on “The Colorado River: dying out by drying out

  1. It was really interesting reading about the Colorado river!
    Your blog post really showed that the necessity to change our lifestyles is not only a matter of reducing our emissions, but overconsumption also has other negative environmental impacts. I think that many people aren’t even aware of the water they consume on a daily basis and the water it takes to produce the goods they buy. Sadly, I believe that it will be very difficult to change behaviour especially when this behaviour is something that has become a habit and gives (short-term) utility/happiness, for example having a long and hot shower in the morning or having a beautiful green garden in an area that used to be a desert.
    I liked about your blogpost that it raised the issue of overconsumption in a different light. We’ve been talking so much about climate change that it is easy to overlook that overconsumption of resources is an issue that goes far beyond fossil fuel energy!


  2. Hi Berend! I really like your piece, it’s interesting to read about how much dependence there is on this river, something which I did not know! Do you think the efforts made to try and counteract this drought will be enough to actually help? I don’t think that it’s very realistic that so many people are likely to change their way of living to counteract this and I wonder if something else can be done. I also wonder what the amount of education is to the people in California, Nevada and Arizona on this issue is. Hopefully they are all well educated and aware of this problem, but I am not sure if this is the case.


  3. Thank you for this interesting blogpost! Sadly, I’ve known about this problem for quite a while now, and it looks like not much has changed in the past years. It indeed makes one wonder how many people in the area, or entire country, are aware of their water use and the impacts it has, just as Katelyn asked. Hopefully the measures are effective… Which one do you think is the most influential?


  4. Thank you for your interesting post on the Colorado river Berend! I think this also sheds a new light on biomass biofuels, since many people see this type of fuel as the means to a greener future. However, cultivating biomass biofuels also strongly increases the need for water and what we can see from your post is that this extra need for water supply might do more harm than biofuels do good. So, I think that just as LUC needs to be included in the LCA of these biofuels, externalities from water usage should as well.

    Another thing I was wondering about is where the drought of 1935 comes from in the figure regarding the water levels of lake mead?


  5. Hi Berend, thanks for your blog post! While reading your post I was thinking of the “Day Zero” that Cape Town was facing last year. Projections are that many more major cities around the world will approach their own Day Zero within the next few decades. You point at the inefficient ways in which we use the water that is available to us and mention the need to change our behaviour to a more sustainable alternative. In order to tackle unsustainable and wasteful behaviour, I think it is necessary to develop an effective pricing mechanism that lets people realize that this resource is not for free and that there is a significant cost involved with ignorantly letting the tap run. Yet when a price is placed on such an essential resource, important questions pop up regarding how to ensure that everyone, including the least well-off, has access to this resource. After all, access to water can be seen as a fundamental human right, as it is required for people’s health and wellbeing. Do you have any thought on this, how we can make sure that if water becomes scarce, we ensure that everyone has access to it as a human right?


  6. Hi Berend,
    I really liked the topic of your blogpost. While I definitely agree with you on the point of a need of reduction of wasteful habits (like I learnt in Hydrology this semester, taps in Europe have filters that insert air bubbles into the water stream, saving a lot of water, something they do not have in the US!).
    However, it also got me thinking of agriculture industry and how the economy is partly depending on this big business in ie. California. Being one of the world’s biggest producers of almonds, which take up a lot of water to produce, does not really really make sense – we don’t need almonds to survive, but surely we need water. I guess this is one of the effects of the short-sighted economic strategies we follow. Do you think there is any way to change this, or adapt the agriculture to use less water?


  7. Hey Berend, similarly to Julia this also reminded me about the crisis that Cape Town was/is still facing regarding water shortage. I read this article ( that describes all the different measures taken by government, companies and residents to avert “Day Zero” (for now). I think that these 7 states in the US could learn a lot from these actions and already start implementing a few now instead of waiting for the situation to become more dire. For example, they could set up an awareness campaign that will more regularly publish updates of the situation as well as provide more data on current water consumption, and spread out this information in mainstream media. In Cape Town this resulted in more discussion on social media as well as people becoming more willing and trying to reduce their consumption. Do you think this would work?
    Of course this is only a short-term solution, but it could buy governmental institutions some time to come up with long-term sustainable policies.


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