Colorado River water problems worsening | Don Brunell

Warmer temperatures, growing population numbers, and an over-appropriation of water will cause big issues soon.

  • Monday, February 24, 2020 2:17pm
  • Business

Last week, we visited the Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. It is part of our National Parks “bucket list.” The trip was a real eye-opener.

The Canyon is spectacular. It is hard to believe over a billion years ago it was flat ground and covered by ocean waters. In ancient times, there was too much water. Today, it is a deep gorge with a ribbon of water running through it.

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, over a mile deep and 10 to 18 miles across. The famed Colorado River runs through it. In total, it flows 1,450 miles from its headwaters high in Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of California.

You’d think that a drainage covering 246,000 miles would have ample water for those depending on it, but there is a growing shortage.

Water professionals in the Colorado River watershed got a scare in 2002, the driest year in recorded history. The river trickled to 25 percent of its usual stream, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. It hasn’t really recovered.

The Denver Post reported in 2018, “Lake Powell (reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam) is about 48 percent full, and Lake Mead (reservoir behind Hoover Dam) is about 38 percent full. By the end of the year, Powell’s levels fell 94 feet below where the reservoir stood in 2000 when it was nearly full.

In 2014, the Colorado River reached the ocean for the first time in 16 years, wrote Cathleen O’Grady of Ars Technica. Most years, the river doesn’t make it that far because it has been dammed and diverted along the way, supplying fresh water to approximately 40 million people and irrigates over 5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to Southern California.

“Politicians over-appropriated the water in the river in the 20th-century boom to create dams and canals in the Southwest. These water diversions helped develop the booming cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino in southern California, Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona, and Las Vegas,” John Fleck, who teaches water policy at University of New Mexico told U.S. News last December.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the loss of snowpack in the Rockies has contributed to a 16 percent decline in the river’s flow between the years, 2000-2017. USGS believes it will worsen by 2050 as the climate warms.

Compounding the problem with warmer temperature, the U.S. Census Bureau expects a 53 percent increase in population by the year 2030 in the Colorado River basin states. Population growth will place even more demand on waters from the Colorado River and its tributaries.

Unless, we take action to reduce consumption and continue to clean up polluted waters, there won’t be enough water to go around——whether it be from the Colorado or other rivers. It is not an issue we can kick ahead.

For the Colorado River users the day of reckoning may come as late as 2026, when the multistate Colorado River Compact will get its first makeover since 1999. It will have to account for the effects of climate change, drought, population growth and agriculture. However, that may not be soon enough. We should act before we find ourselves in the same predicament.

The bottom line is we need to figure out how to get more from less.

“Water does cover 70 percent of the earth but only 2.5 percent of it is fresh water, and if you break it down further, there’s only about 0.006 percent fresh water available in the world,” said Jose Lopez, assistant professor of physics at Seton Hall University.

However, as our population grows, so does pressure on water supplies.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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