Apr 19, 2022 - News

Colorado River ranked as "most endangered" in the nation

Dry cracked earth is visible in an area of Lake Powell that was previously underwater. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Colorado River is the nation's most endangered waterway as climate change and overuse threaten its future, according to a new report.

Why it matters: The river provides drinking water to 40 million people in seven states and 30 tribal nations, not to mention it drives the region's agriculture and outdoor recreation industries.

Threat level: The Colorado River is "ground zero for the climate and water crisis" in the West, according to the report released Tuesday by American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group.

  • The river's flows to Lake Powell are diminishing amid rising temperatures — falling perilously close in March to the lowest level at which its dam can generate electricity.
  • The forecast for the months ahead is dire, too. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the river's flow to the lake to be 64% of normal.
  • By 2050, experts say the river's flow will fall 10-30% because of climate change.

What they're saying: Climate change was a main topic at the Colorado River District's State of the River meeting last week, the Daily Sentinel reported.

  • "We've been seeing strong trends of temperature increases in Colorado since the 1980s, with the most consistent warming in summer," Peter Bennett Goble, a climatologist at Colorado State University, said at the meeting.
  • "With those warmer temperatures, the moisture in our soils is used up more quickly by crops, plants and forests, which fuels those drier conditions."

What to watch: Colorado River advocates are urging states to use the billions of dollars from the federal infrastructure bill to invest in conservation strategies, such as upgrading agricultural irrigation systems and incentivizing decreased water usage.

The bottom line: Matt Rice at American Rivers says Colorado has an outsized role to play in the river's conservation as the headwater state. He hopes the report is a "call to action."

  • "This is not a Western Slope issue," he told Axios Denver. "If we are going to be successful and meet this challenge, everybody in the state of Colorado is going to need to change."

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