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.
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.
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.
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