With each passing decade the Colorado River flows with less and less water. Reservoirs that capture water in the wet years are dwindling. Some are dangerously low.
Scientists see no end in sight. Rather, they expect the drought to continue, maybe even worsen.
This is the aridification of the American West.
RELATED: The West’s most important water supply is drying up. Soon, life for 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River will change.
The Denver Post took a deep look into decades-old decisions that made it more difficult to take the immediate and necessary steps to conserve water in the Colorado River Basin. Here are five key findings:
1. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact, an interstate agreement which divides the amount of water that flows through the Colorado River between Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The agreement allowed the American West to tap into the river, which led to explosive growth. But it also overestimated the amount of water the river would provide, imposed rigid standards and deadlines on one of the world’s wildest rivers and excluded dozens of Native American tribes from negotiating for their fair share.
2. Politicians, government officials and others were warned of problems along the way. Hydrologists wrote of possible shortages as early as 1916 and in the decades since. But the errors cemented in the 1922 Colorado River Compact didn’t become immediately apparent because the West hadn’t yet grown to its full size.
3. The lines of supply and demand for the Colorado River crossed in 2000. The West was taking more water than the river had to give and eventually this started to drain the biggest two reservoirs in the country, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. While the upper-basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – use less water each year than they’re allotted, the lower-basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada – are still drawing more water than they’re supposed to.
4. As the Colorado River provides less and less water, the 40 million people who depend on it must grow accustomed to living with less. Experts anticipate this will mean higher electric rates, more expensive groceries, cuts to the agricultural industry and less tourism, among other things.
5. The Colorado River Basin states must find a new way to divide up the water without scuttling the old agreement. And soon. Not only must they have a new plan before the start of 2026, or risk ceding control to the federal government, but they also must make emergency, short-term cuts to bridge that four-year gap.
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