Quenching thirst in the Colorado River Basin

low water levels in the colorado river

There is little dispute that the Colorado River Basin is thirsty. In an attempt to learn from that condition, a new series, published by the Colorado Water Center and co-authored by Karen Kwon and Jennifer Gimbel, is intended to provide an understanding of issues and relationships that have shaped the basin so that the historical doctrines can bend to the needs of the present and future without eroding a foundation upon which we all stand. The basin has been enduring a prolonged drought since 2000 with no apparent relief in sight. The 2021 water year was one of the driest in the CR Basin’s recorded history. The science presents a cautionary tale that the abundance of 20th Century water supplies may be a thing of the past.

On-the-ground experience and various models demonstrate a regularly hotter, drier future for the CR system going forward. In other words, it may not be just a persistent drought but a more pronounced drying of the system. At the same time, there remains a strong need to support and maintain the agricultural spirit that has defined much of the West’s heritage for well over 100 years. There is also a significant pull to sustain urban cities that rely on Colorado River water to help supply their growing populations. Not to be overlooked, there is an ever-growing recognition that various Native American Tribes hold legitimate claims to the river to support their cultures, reservations, and homelands throughout the desert southwest. Finally, there is the added pressure to provide for all of these and other demands without deteriorating the aesthetic and ecological values of the CR Basin.

Past experience teaches us that neither protracted litigation in courts nor political maneuvering through Congress will guarantee successful outcomes in response to the Basin’s complex challenges. Instead, collaboration and cooperation are also necessary ingredients for thriving in the 21st Century. For the Colorado River Basin, this requires a commitment to and focus on cooperation and beneficial arrangements among varying interests to help mitigate and adapt to changing conditions throughout the region.

This series encourages such commitments by providing background and context regarding the forces that have compelled the development and operation of the Colorado River from the 1920s to today. Find a more in-depth examination than may otherwise be identified in news stories and articles of four primary forces that influence decision making: (i) History, Law, and Policy; (ii) Indian Reserved Water Rights in the Colorado River Basin; (iii) Environmental Perspectives in the Colorado River Basin; and (iv) Sharing the River Between the U.S. and Mexico. Insight into how the Basin has arrived at where it is today will hopefully help inform how best to direct where it needs to be tomorrow.

Find the full series and learn more about the Colorado Water Center at watercenter.colostate.edu.

About the Colorado Water Center

The Colorado Water Center, one of 54 Water Resources Research Institutes created by the Water Resources Act of 1964, has served the greater Colorado community for nearly six decades. The Water Center leads interdisciplinary research, education and outreach to address complex and evolving water-related challenges in Colorado and beyond, fostering collaboration and inspiring the next generation of water leaders.