What Happens If the Colorado River System Doesn’t Recover from ‘Historic Drought’

Sub Levels

The Colorado River, one of the nation’s most important river systems, is drying up at an alarming rate.

The problem of declining water levels in the Colorado River Basin is as hot as the dry climate, which has contributed to the region’s decades-long, moisture-robbing megadrought.

Despite a very wet winter that has softened the effects of years of drought, local officials and environmental experts have warned that future water supply declines will be severe and that lower water levels will affect local economies and human health. I am expressing concern about other impacts that it may have.

Adequate water supplies are a “critical component” for human health and public safety, Shinjin Everle, Southwest regional communications director for the nonprofit American Rivers, told ABC News.

“Without a healthy environment, we do not have a healthy drinking water supply, we do not have a healthy ecosystem, we do not have a healthy wildlife habitat.” “

The Colorado River is one of the nation’s most important river systems.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to 40 million people in the United States and two states in Mexico. It also fuels hydroelectric resources in eight states and continues to be an important resource for the western 30 tribal nations and farming communities.

River systems support $1.4 trillion of the U.S. economy annually and support 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. This equates to about 1/12 of the gross domestic product of the United States. Arizona he was found in 2015. More than 90% of this country’s winter leafy greens and many of its vegetables are grown in Yuma, Arizona. This state is the state with the most drastic water cuts under current regulations.

Lake Mead hit a record low elevation of 1,067 feet in December 2021, causing a 25% drop in hydroelectric production. The reservoir was dangerously close to a deadpool condition, with water levels too low to flow downstream to generate electricity, and to flow to the surface in June 2021 to generate electricity. The elevation was measured at just 1,043 feet.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the water level in Lake Mead was 1,046 feet this March.

Zach Zobel, a risk scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, said Deadpool’s condition is “in the not too distant future” and could see five or six consecutive dry winters in the next decade. He told ABC News there is.

If the West is unenthusiastic about learning to live within its water system, it will “severely impact” other sectors, such as the semiconductor industry in Phoenix, and the billion-dollar industries that provide tens of thousands of jobs in Arizona and Eval. ” may give. Said.

Without water from the Colorado River, Arizona’s gross state product would drop by more than $185 billion a year and the state would lose more than 2 million jobs, according to a 2015 report. .

Additionally, electricity and water bills could skyrocket, and the region should consider building infrastructure for other power sources, such as solar and wind, Eberle said.

“What’s even more alarming is that water could become so scarce that it may not be possible to pump and deliver it to water-dependent states, communities and agricultural industries,” says University of California, Davis. Law School Professor Richard Frank said: he told ABC News.

Low water levels are widely due to climate change

Experts say the West has suffered significant droughts over the past two decades, much of it due to man-made or man-made climate change.

In 2020, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey announced that for every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature, the flow along the Colorado River fell by 9.3%. This will deplete 1.5 billion tons of water, much of which will be lost through evaporation or scarcity. According to studies, or snowmelt.

Eberle says the Colorado River is about 19 percent less water than it was in 2000. By 2050, that number is expected to be 30% lower than in 2000, if temperatures continue to rise, he added.

Colorado River Is Overallocated, Experts Say

In 1922, the Colorado River Accord divided how water supplies from the Colorado River and its tributaries should be distributed among seven states that depended on the river’s water. The upper basin was established as New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, while the lower basin consists of California, Nevada, and Arizona. His two states of Mexico, Baja California and Sonora, were compact additions in the 1940s.

However, the amount of water allocated was “inconsistent” and even by 1922 standards “greatly exceeded” the amount of water actually available, Frank said.

“The amount of water allocated to each state was overestimated,” says Frank. “So the premise was flawed in the first place.”

Based on a very wet period in the early 20th century, Eberle said, those responsible for dividing water resources assumed they were working on a 17 million acre-foot river. These days, he said, the river is approaching 12 million or 11 million acre feet.

Only about 500,000 people lived in the basin when the deal was signed. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and that number has risen to over 40 million due to the region’s population explosion, which is home to three of the nation’s largest cities (Phoenix, San Diego, and Los Angeles) that depend on the Colorado River. said Ebert.

Climate change over the past century will only exacerbate the inevitable problem, says Frank.

“So at a time when we’re attracting more people who want to live in the Southwest, we have the added challenge of declining water availability,” Frank said. “That’s a problem.”

Even without climate change, population growth is likely to cause the Colorado River to decline, Zobell said.

A year of heavy rain is not enough to solve the problem

In early fall, visual evidence of over-allocation was noticeable along the Colorado River system, coupled with years of severe drought. At Lake Mead and Lake Powell, prominent tub rings were seen to mark where water levels once stood. Parts of Lake Mead were so dry that human remains began to emerge in the freshwater-covered riverbed.

Then, as winter set in, an “amazing and totally unpredictable series of events” occurred, Eberle said.

A series of atmospheric rivers – essentially empty rivers that collect moisture from the tropics and redistribute it to other latitudes – has brought an influx of precipitation to the West Coast since December, bringing heavy rains and snow in rapid succession. and brings. to dry areas.

“The snow cover is amazing, and in some ways it’s like keeping your foot off the gas in terms of how dire things can get.” No urgent steps have been taken to conserve water. yeah.

Scientists say that in the future, droughts will tend to be more extensive, longer and more prolonged, occasionally interrupted by periods of abundant rainfall.

Zobel said this year will be a “major case study” of how much water can be recovered from the largest reservoirs over the past five years.

“If things don’t pick up in a good year, things still don’t look good for the future,” Zobel said.

Climate scientists no longer expect precipitation in many “average” years, Zobel said. Instead, it is likely that either all of the precipitation will fall at once or none at all, in what is called a “boom or burst precipitation pattern”.

Atmospheric rivers are expected to occur more frequently as global temperatures continue to rise, but relying on the uncertainty that these events may occur again is not an appropriate management strategy. is not.

Influx of water to the coast has not yet added to the water supply of the Colorado River system, but experts say it will increase as the snowpack melts.

In the sub-basin near Durango, Colorado, snow cover is about 180% above normal levels, Eberle said.

“Eventually, it will bring a lot of water to Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” he said.

Immediate steps required to maintain water level

The population continues to implode, especially in the southwest, the fastest-growing region of the country, experts said.

The policy should include a “massive” water cutoff, especially for the agricultural industry, Zobel said.

Frank said it would be a “magical idea” to assume that water from the Colorado River would be available indefinitely in downstream states.

Officials may have reached a consensus that too much water is running off the Colorado River system.

On April 11, the U.S. Reclamation Service will reduce the amount of water released from the Glen Canyon Dam or, if the basin states do not do so, cut water quotas equally among all downstream basin states. announced that it is considering ground-breaking proposals that include water-saving scenarios. We need to find ways to save 4 million acre feet of water by 2024 (about 20% of our current water use).

“Three decades of historic drought have created conditions that the people who built this system could never have imagined,” Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Boudreau told reporters on April 11.

Frank said the interstate debate to cut water without federal intervention has become “very difficult and difficult,” adding that Mexican rights further complicate matters.

Mr Frank added that the Home Office “has the final say”.

The Biden administration also plans to provide $15.4 billion in investments to strengthen the West’s resilience to drought. This includes reducing water demand, maximizing water resources, and protecting communities along the Colorado River Basin.

Part of these solutions should include modernizing agricultural industrial systems, which use up to 80% of water supplies in some regions, experts say.

Water problems are so prevalent in Arizona that the City of Scottsdale has cut off water supply to the Rio Verde Hills, a wealthy suburb of the city.

“We need to know how much water exists, how much water exists, and how much water is needed in different aspects of life, such as agriculture, urban drinking water, recreational and people’s water. environment – ​​a key component of the sustainability of human health and public safety across the basin,” said Eberle.

If the problem is not resolved, the lack of adequate water supplies will have “severe consequences” for communities and businesses in the West, as well as the country at large, Frank said.

“What does Tom Cruise say in ‘Mission Impossible’? Hope is not a strategy,” Eberle said.

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