Colorado River, Depleted by Climate Change, May Bring a Grand Drought

By Eliza Strickland | April 21, 2009 10:57 am

Colorado RiverIf global warming trends continue unabated, the Colorado River won’t have enough water to supply the 27 million people who depend on it, according to a new study. Less runoff — the snow and rain that fortify the 1,400-mile river — caused by human-induced climate change could mean that by 2050 the Colorado won’t be able to provide all of its allocated water 60 percent to 90 percent of the time, according to two climate researchers [AP].

The Colorado River flows through seven states in the American Southwest and continues into Mexico. It supplies water to households, businesses, factories, and farms, and is also home to several endangered species of fish. The study’s lead researcher, Tim Barnett, says that the findings indicate that tough decisions will have to be made about who will get less water. Agricultural operations use about 80 percent of the water taken out of the Colorado, Barnett said. He knows the arguments, though: Shorting farms could drive up food prices. Curbing development in cities and suburbs will make developers unhappy. Whatever the case, he said, some decisions need to be made soon. “The actions that need to be taken aren’t going to be fun,” Barnett said. “It’s not going to be life as usual” [AP].

The researchers say the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should be a wake-up call that encourages new water conservation efforts. In Arizona, officials have pushed more drastic proposals to add water to the river’s flow. Among the plans under review are cloud-seeding, injecting salt or other substances into storm clouds to increase rain or snow; the use of desalination plants for seawater and brackish groundwater; and efficiency measures such as lining canals to keep water from seeping into the ground [Arizona Republic].

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Image: flickr / deliriant

  • larrydalooza

    Welcome to the AGW crazy train… woo woo … chugga chugga… woo woo

  • Tom

    Notice how the one missing item from the list was legal and illegal immigration.

    We cannot hope to have sustainable water useage, resource useage, power useage, etc while at the same time allowing millions immigrants a year into our country.

    Nor can we continue to allow sprawl to continue. Most cities were originally located around water. Look at Detroit and Cleveland compared to Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and SoCal. A good 50% of water in urban metro areas east of the mississippi simply leaks out of water and sewar mains. Yet, amazingly the cost of water is greater in high tax eastern states than in water poor desert states.

    The whole premise is that we can have open borders, let the entire world live according to US standards (if not there then here) and everyone can have everything they want if we focus on technology and efficiency.

    NO! Its bigger than that! We need a sustainable population and that means closed borders. We need sustainable cities and that means limiting suburban sprawl. If not the nation that manufactured for the world, shopped for the world, fed the world, etc is going to be facing its own domestic famines. Food imports can be cut off just as easily as oil and raw materials. Technology can be cut off with EMP bombs just as easily!

  • Erasmussimo

    This is another example of the costs of NOT addressing climate change. Advocates on one side rightly point to the high costs of reducing carbon emissions. But we must be equally cognizant of the costs of NOT reducing carbon emissions. Only when we can reasonably compare costs with benefits can we render a reliable decision.

  • Gwenny

    Okay, a couple of points. One, although we are obviously in the throes of climate change (as, in fact, we always are since the climate cycles) , “Less runoff — the snow and rain that fortify the 1,400-mile river — caused by human-induced climate change ” is false. I can believe humans have impacted the environment. But I cannot believe that we are CAUSING climate change. We are still cycling “back” from an Ice Age and maybe all the water in the Colorado wasn’t “normal”

    Additionally, the entire fault for the Colorado not supplying enough water is NOT about less rainfall about more people. At some point we need to face the fact that there are too many of us and start mandating re-use policies and doing away with lawns and other frivolous uses of water.

  • Erasmussimo

    Gwenny, I won’t bother explaining the science behind climate change to you. If you’re really interested in learning about it, there’s tons of good stuff on the web (as well as tons of junk). For the best overview, see the National Academy of Sciences website. You’re welcome to your political opinions but the judgements of those who actually understand the issues is very strongly in favor of the AGW hypothesis.

  • Nick

    Speaking as someone living in a drought-prone area that sells most of it’s water to LA to waste, nearly killing off endagered species that live in the delta that the water is pump from, I have to say that I can see the very real effects of climate change…. and all those people who natter on about how human’s can’t be responsible for it… why did it only pick up speed after the industrial revolution? Why hasn’t it proceeded at the same sedate pace it has over the 10,000 years since the last ice age? Why is it accelerating?

    Go to [REDACTED], SUV driving earth destroyers. I HATE how awful my city’s air smells. It burns my nose.

    And about the illegal immigration thing – you wouldn’t eat if it weren’t for immigrants working the fields. And I highly doubt that the 12 million american’s that are immigrants of dubious legal status (most of them are actually Canadians but they look like us so they don’t get demonized… do some research man) are causing a water shortage when they are less than .3% of our population (that, except for Native Americans, were all immigrants at one point in their family’s history). People are always worried about the wrong things. That Prius you drive full of horribly toxic lead-acid batteries is doing more to harm the environment than any illegal immigrant.

    Water has been scarce where I live (right smack in the middle of California’s Central Valley, breadbasket of America, ironically) and I’ve lived through water rationing more than once already. And it’s just getting worse.

  • larrydalooza

    No brakes on this train… ahhh… the sky… the sky

  • Chuck B

    Most water loss in the Colorado is from evaporation. It may sound weird, but covering most of the river would prevent most of the loss, and perhaps allow some of the evaporate to be collected for drinking where needed. Irrigation canals should also be covered. California’s Central Valley could also save huge amounts of scarce water that way, too.

  • Ryan

    At some point we need to face the fact that there are too many of us and start mandating re-use policies and doing away with lawns and other frivolous uses of water.

    You know, the good thing here is that we actually don’t need to accomplish this in any particular order. Cultural uses of water, like lawns/gardens, private swimming pools, and the like can probably be addressed through many avenues (like raising the cost) without addressing how many of us there are.

  • oface5446

    Larrydalooza –

    You ARE a loser and your pervasive political spin is obviously your life’s work. Go suck an egg, twerp.

  • Roy

    Due to all the late season snow, the Upper CO River basin is at 100% of average water content in the snowpack. We won’t know if this is the start of a new trend or just an aberration until we have another 10 or 20 years of data.
    As a lifelong resident of California’s Central Valley for 50 years, and an Agric. Science major and fisherman, I understand extremely well the huge effect the sometimes decades long snowpack cycles have on water availability. I am now a resident of South Orange County, and I’m appalled by the lack of awareness the people down here have on water use issues, and how much water they waste.
    Desalination plants need to be pursued and built to relieve some of the load of southern CA water users on the Sacramento/Colorado River water systems. Perhaps having to pay more for water will slow the waste.

  • Dave Says

    Hey ice age boy. If you had a clue what you were talking about you would know that there was a mini ice age during the 17th and 18th century. Just a hint. Why would Greenland be called Greenland if it was cover in snow and ice. Another hint is follow the history of the potato. I’m sure you were screaming during the 1970’s that the U.S.A. will be covered by snow in 30 years. Well it’s 30 years and now your screaming about global warming. The sky is falling!!!

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    We humans must, as a collective whole, learn to use all of our Earths’ resources more responsibly and more efficently. Open irrigation of any kind, is extremely wasteful. I am not certain of the exact numbers, but they are very high, along the lines of over 80% evaporation. If we can first of all work on creating a closed sistern system, with pumps powered by wind and solar technology to draw and save the water from the river, and then gravity fed to a drip irrigation system, I believe we can have enough water to satisfy our needs. Creating a major system like this would provide multilayered jobs as well. We would need to manufacture the actual parts of the system, such as the cisterns, and drip hoses, and then install and keep them maintained. Using human power in this way also reduces pollution. At the same time, we must work on the very real and immediate problem of the loss of our pollinating bees and other insects. We may actually need to resort to some form of hand pollination. This could be accomplished in several ways utilizing the human based agricultural system. We can solve this problem, and help our Earth and all of us humans at the same time. After all, it’s not rocket science, just common sense and a true commitment to conservation.

  • Reid

    I’m doing a research paper on the water shortage in California.
    I was wondering what good websites would have some information about pure dead on facts on why this is happening and the main reason why its happening. I really would like to know if the Colorado river drought is going to impact this a great deal.

  • Marleen Stencil

    You completed some fine points there. I did a search on the issue and found mainly persons will consent with your blog.


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