by Neil Stalter | Zoom Out Mycology
The Colorado River stretches 1,450 miles and meanders through five states and two countries; at one time, more water flowed from the Colorado into the sea per second than tumbles over Niagara Falls. Five million years ago, it raged through Arizona and created one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World: The Grand Canyon. In 1869 John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran and scientist, led an expedition down the virtually unknown Colorado. The journey was perilous; only six of the ten men who started down the Green River (a tributary of the Colorado) made it to the mouth of the Colorado three months later. Rapids, waterfalls, and cliffs created a river that was nearly impossible to navigate. Now, in 2017, the portion at the end of the river flowing through Mexico can generously be called a “stream,” and more realistically be called a “trickle.” Since 1990, there has rarely ever been a time where the water reached the Gulf of California.
So what changed?
We started using it.
The Colorado River Watershed stretches across eight states, all of which received an allotment of water from the Colorado River Compact in 1922. This compact continues to dictate these states’ water use today. The problem though, is that the compact allocates more water per year than even flows through the river. It would be physically impossible for all of these states to use their entire allotment of water. For this reason, the river has been dammed and altered mercilessly. For those readers who have visited the Hoover Dam, you know how the structure dwarfs nearly everything seen before it. Behind the giant cement wall sits a “savings account” of water for California, Nevada, and Arizona in the form of Lake Mead (Lake Powell, named after the explorer mentioned above, sits 250 miles northwest in Utah).
Where does the water go?
Often, when I think about where the Colorado River water is going, I think of the dramatic and intricate fountain show at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. The last time I was there a few years ago, the “lake” in front of the hotel was striking. As the jets of water created colorful streaks in the air, I couldn’t help but think about the colored ring around Lake Mead showing just how far the water has dropped in the past 20 years. The last time the reservoir was full was in 1998, and it has been dropping ever since. However, the human-made lake in front of the Bellagio doesn’t even take its water from Lake Mead, and if it did, the level of the lake would drop less than one-hundredth of an inch. In fact, today Nevada uses less water than it did 15 years ago! So what is causing the Colorado to dry up before it reaches the ocean? In short: agriculture.
A Congressman in 1928 called the Colorado River “Intrinsically the most valuable stream in the world.” Today, the river supplies over 36 million people with water and irrigates nearly 6 million acres of farmland (roughly the size of New Hampshire). If you’ve eaten fruits and vegetables in the United States, you’ve eaten produce irrigated by Colorado River water. An 80-mile long canal stretches from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley in California, where it supplies 3,000 miles of irrigation channels that water 500,000 acres of produce. To put that in perspective, 3,000 miles is roughly the distance between Portland, Oregon and Tampa, Florida, and every mile of those channels is filled with the same water that snakes peacefully through the Grand Canyon. If California used their entire allotment of water from the Colorado in one gulp, Lake Mead would drop a staggering 45 feet.
As farmers irrigate their crops, they often flood the channels around the produce and let the water work its way into the soil and roots. This allows only about 60% of the water to reach the plants they need to irrigate, while the other 40% is lost to evaporation, or flows into the soil and back toward the Colorado. On the other hand, technology like drip irrigation is roughly 90% efficient and therefore requires less water. However, the technology is expensive, and as crop watering becomes more efficient, less water returns to the river! With flood irrigation, the water that flows back into the ground is returned to the Colorado River Watershed, but with drip irrigation, the water is packed more efficiently into the plants and exported to faraway countries that buy American produce. This paradox of efficient irrigation is one of the most difficult things to address because using less water is naturally good for the health of the Colorado River, but as efficiency grows, proportionally more water is sent further away. This is known as nonrenewable water use.
What Can We Do?
If you’re a large-scale farmer in the Southwest, the above question is a complicated one. Farmers could consider keeping produce in the United States rather than exporting it to other countries while investing in water saving technologies like drip irrigation. This would keep water resources relatively local, and therefore “renewable.” Growing less water-intensive varieties of a crop is another good strategy for mitigating the water footprint of industrial farming. However, this question is a little easier to answer for people who live around the Colorado (and anywhere in the US struggling with water). Using less water can be easier than many people think. Watering lawns and gardens are one of the largest consumer uses of water in the US: roughly 30% of household water use is for outdoor purposes. Grasses like Buffalo Grass and Pearl’s Premium can be incredibly drought tolerant and require less irrigation. In dry areas, transforming your water-intensive lawn into a desert lawn through xeriscaping can be extremely helpful, and look downright beautiful.
The Colorado River is a beautiful ecosystem that supports millions of people and helped create one of the most beautiful parts of the United States. However, without intense strategizing and problem solving, the Colorado faces an existential crisis in the coming decades. Understanding the problem, and how our water is being used is the first step to addressing the larger water issues facing the American Southwest, and the rest of the country.
About the author:
Neil Stalter is currently a student at Columbia University in New York City pursuing his Masters in Environmental Science and Policy. Neil has a background in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Rochester. I’m from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and have always been incredibly passionate about the environment, and solving environmental problems!
The US Bureau of Reclamation
The New Yorker
California Air Resources Board
Owen, David: “Where the Water Goes”
California Air Resources Board
Imperial County Farm Bureau
The Food and Agriculture Organization
New World Encyclopedia
The US National Park Service
US Environmental Protection Agency
The History Channel
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