Inside the water crisis: A journey across the Colorado River Basin
This story originally published in Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
I’m Ian James, a reporter on The Times’ Climate and Environment team, filling in this week for Sammy Roth.
Several months ago, I met a group camping on the banks of the Green River in Utah. Cottonwood trees were rustling in the breeze as we put up our tents on the sandy ground. The sun was setting, and the cliffs glowed in the fading light.
As the sky darkened, we sat around a crackling fire talking about a complicated subject: the Colorado River.
I had joined the students from Utah State University at the invitation of their professor, Jack Schmidt, who was leading the field trip as part of a course on the future of the Colorado River. The discussion around the fire wove through many issues: the river’s declining reservoirs, agriculture, urban growth, the water rights system, climate change, degraded ecosystems and the thorny politics surrounding necessary reductions in water use.
The students were inquisitive and imaginative as they sketched out potential avenues for addressing the river’s crisis. At the same time, they voiced frustration about the many barriers that seem to hinder progress, and the difficulty of grappling collectively with the reality of the river’s water limits.
One student wondered about the economics and politics of nudging those in the agriculture business, which consumes much of the water, to shift away from thirsty crops like alfalfa to other crops that use less water. A classmate said part of the problem lies in the “continual growth mindset” in the Southwest and plans for more water-intensive development.
Another suggested it’s possible to adapt as the river yields less water: “I think it’s keeping priorities straight and managing things in the right way, finding a good balance, creating an ecosystem and also having a thriving society.”
Schmidt, who leads Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies, said he planned the trip to give students a broad view of the many perspectives and “all the moving pieces that are involved in trying to decide how water supply is going to be allocated in the future, and what the ecosystems of the Colorado River might look like in the future.”
“I’d like the next generation of students to appreciate the complexity of the issue so that as they try to find solutions for the future, they’re not naive and myopic in their opinions, and they understand that there are lots of different perspectives, and that as we go forward we’re going to have to make some really hard decisions,” Schmidt said. “So we’re going from one interest to another, and one part of the river system to another. It’s a large watershed. We’re going to focus on only a few parts of it, and we’re going to realize just how deeply challenging it is to figure out a future for the river.”
My conversations with Schmidt and his students influenced my thinking about how our region, from the Rocky Mountains to Southern California, could begin to move toward solutions that bring water consumption in line with what the Colorado River can provide.
That outing on the banks of the Green River was one of our first as my colleagues and I traveled across the Colorado River Basin, from the headwaters to the river’s parched delta in Mexico. We spent months examining the river’s crisis — its decline during the worst megadrought in centuries, the perspectives of those seeing the effects, the consequences that are starting to emerge throughout the watershed, and what adapting to the river’s limits may mean for the region’s future.
Our series, Colorado River in Crisis, is appearing online starting today. You can read the first two stories on the series page, where you will also find videos and the latest episodes of our six-part podcast on The Times.
The Colorado River is overused and shrinking. Inside the crisis transforming the Southwest
The Colorado River is approaching a breaking point, its over-tapped reservoirs dropping. Years of drying have taken a toll at the river’s source in the Rockies.
Before you dive into the series, I’d like to share more of what I heard from the students in Utah. They were visiting tributaries of the Colorado including the Green, the Dolores and the San Juan rivers, and they had plans to meet with farmers, water managers, representatives of tribes and others.
I talked with Naomi Orchard, a 24-year-old who is studying management and restoration of aquatic ecosystems. She is a second-generation river guide who has paddled the Green and the Colorado rivers. I asked her how that has influenced her thinking about the river, and here is what she said:
“In this class, we kind of get caught up sometimes talking about the Colorado River as this just mechanism of delivering water and where it’s going, and who’s getting it and what it’s being used for. And I think that being a river guide reminds me of what the river is like along its way, that it’s a complicated ecosystem.
“I have a personal connection with the river. It’s changed me as a person, fundamentally. It’s taught me how to be an authentic version of myself, and taking people down the river lets me share that with other people.
“I think it gives people a perspective of our role on the planet, and where we stand, how small we really are. And also gives people an opportunity to connect with the natural world and connect with each other in a way that can be really hard in our normal world of technology and responsibilities. Yeah, so that’s why I love being a river guide. And the thing that I like to try to remember when we’re talking about these big issues of water management and drought is that we’re talking about the river as this mechanism of water delivery, this channel. But to me, it’s its own entity with its own personality and its own beauty and its own aesthetic and its own purpose in itself, as just a river being a river.”
Reflecting on the river’s crisis and potential solutions, Orchard said:
“The real issue is climate change causing drought, and the inability of our legal system to adapt to this nonstationary and uncertain climate that we’ve created. That’s what I think the big issue is, those two things, the overarching human-caused climate change and the inadequacy of our legal system that we have governing the river. … I think there’s not one direct answer to the issues facing the Colorado River. But I think a big part of that is very clearly and bluntly addressing issues of climate change, and really rethinking our legal system, and recognizing its inadequacies and being flexible enough to change those.”
I asked what else she thinks more people should understand about the Colorado River.
“I think that we’re so disconnected from how we get our water and our food that it’s really easy to forget we live in a desert, we live in an arid region of the West, and we are all relying on this one river — 40 million people are drinking Colorado River water. … I’m from Tucson, Ariz. I’ve lived in the desert my whole life. And I think it’s easy to forget where we live and how to adapt our lifestyles to match the region that we’re living in ... and that the river is a fragile, finite resource that is worth protecting, worth fighting for.”
I also spoke with recent graduate Christine Longjohn, who earned a master’s degree in ecological restoration. Longjohn, 38, said she has been studying how to reconnect floodplains and help ecosystems recover. In the big picture, she said, overuse of water is clearly a central problem, and everyone understands it, but finding ways to manage the shortfall is complicated among the many stakeholders.
“It’s just a big fight for everybody to try to figure all this out,” Longjohn said. “I think the states really need to come together and really figure this out.”
Kevin Chaves, who is studying hydrology and has also worked as a river guide, said as he has learned more about the river’s fractured ecosystems, the effects of climate change and society’s responses, he has seen that it’s “a big mess,” and he wants to help address the problems.
Chaves, 27, said he would like to see a healthy, flowing river, including in the desiccated delta in Mexico. He said he thinks part of the problem is that water, whether it flows to farming areas or cities, has effectively been assigned a price for monetary gain, and is completely used up.
“It’s basically a working river. This water that runs in the Colorado has a value. And that’s all we’ve cared about,” Chaves said. “There’s so much demand for water, because every drop of this water is going to eventually give yield to profit.
“Do we have value for natural ecosystems?” Chaves said. “We have to look inward as a society and just see what we can do for the future in terms of finding a balance.”
As the group chatted, Schmidt handed me a piece of paper with a chart showing how out of balance the river system is. He had compiled the data, and the chart showed a striking comparison between two lines: One showed water demand — to be precise, the total consumptive water uses and losses — and the other showed supply — annual estimates of the river’s natural flow.
The gap between the lines was enormous. It showed how the river has been chronically overdrawn during the severe drought since 2000, and how the water shortfall has been worsening.
Schmidt said solutions clearly require dealing with the water deficit.
“If the expenditures exceed the income, you drain the bank account, and that’s what we’ve done,” Schmidt said.
“We have nothing left and so we’ve got no buffer. And that’s the crisis,” Schmidt said. “We’re going to be looking at the prospect of needing to make a really large reduction in a really short amount of time. And we’ve never had to do that. And so this is going to really test the capacity of our society to make those fast adjustments.”
The chart showed that this deficit has been years in the making. And it reminded me of the prescient words of Marc Reisner in his 1986 book, “Cadillac Desert.”
Reisner wrote that the Colorado “is referred to as a ‘deficit’ river, as if the river were somehow at fault for its overuse.” Even then, in a much wetter decade, Reisner wrote that people in the river basin “will probably find themselves facing chronic shortages, if not some kind of catastrophe.”
As Reisner put it, “amid the salt-encrusted sands of the river’s dried-up delta, we began to founder on the Era of Limits.”
As I continued with my reporting and witnessed the stark changes in the river’s depleted reservoirs, those words stayed with me — that we are deeply in an era of limits, now far beyond the river’s limits.
That night at camp, one of the experts who joined the students was Eric Kuhn, a retired Colorado water manager and co-author of the book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.”
“I sense some frustration, on behalf of some of the students, that we all know what the problems are on the river but institutionally we can’t move fast enough to fix things,” Kuhn told me. “I share the perspective that we’re not moving fast enough. The river conditions are changing faster than we can adapt to it.”
Kuhn said he thinks there has been progress, and “we’re learning how to make decisions quicker.” But the ways water is used and the rules that govern the river, he said, “have been ingrained into the culture and the law over the last hundred years, and changing them is not going to be easy.”
“One of my concerns is that at some point, we’re going to have to turn these temporary reductions into permanent reductions. And politically that’s going to be much more difficult,” Kuhn said.
Our examination of the Colorado River’s crisis begins at the headwaters in Colorado, where dry conditions and rising temperatures have reduced the flow of water, and continues to Lake Powell, which has declined to its lowest levels since the reservoir was filled.
Bookmark this page to read the whole series as it’s published.
Thanks to our subscribers for helping to support our extensive work on this series. And for those who haven’t yet made the jump, please consider subscribing to read all our coverage. Here are the details about how to subscribe.
And here’s what else is happening around the West:
AFTER THE STORMS
After the powerful storms that brought deadly flooding and damage across California, officials in Los Angeles County are left with a big and costly job: emptying the reservoir behind Santa Anita Dam of about 600,000 cubic yards of debris and soupy mud more than 80 feet deep. Two of the dam’s three outlets for stormwater are blocked with silt. My L.A. Times colleague Louis Sahagún reported that the price tag for removing all that debris and mud — which is vital to maintaining the integrity of the flood-control system — is estimated at $550 million.
The series of storms brought California a bonanza of snow, and the rains have given the state’s reservoirs a major boost. With so much water pouring down, nearly a dozen legislators urged state and federal officials to relax environmental pumping restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. But Times reporter Hayley Smith interviewed experts who say it’s not that simple. Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the “first flush” is biologically important for native fish and the dynamics of the estuary. Mount’s PPIC colleague Greg Gartrell told Times political columnist George Skelton that in the delta, most of the high flows are “uncapturable” and are “freshening San Francisco Bay.” Skelton considered differences between rivers in Northern and Southern California, and offered this take: “Uncaptured water isn’t wasted. But when large amounts are suddenly gifted by nature, more could be stored for a non-rainy day.”
In a piece focusing on Ventura County for The Times, reporters Dorany Pineda and Brittny Mejia examined the struggles of California’s farmworkers during the January floods. They wrote that the flooding is the latest in a series of environmental crises affecting farmworkers, including laboring in extreme heat, inhaling harmful wildfire smoke or losing work due to drought.
In a guest essay in the New York Times, writer Mark Arax eloquently reflected: “A flood year always breaks the drought years, or so my grandfather the raisin farmer told it. Drought is California. Flood is California. ... Between the extremes lies an average year, which happens so infrequently that it is a myth we tell ourselves.”
Californians are being hit with big increases in utility bills this winter as fossil gas prices spike dramatically. The L.A. Times Editorial Board weighed in on this natural gas price shock, saying it’s “the latest illustration of why there are more than just environmental reasons to quickly phase out natural gas, a fossil fuel that pollutes the air and is heating up the planet.”
For Politico, Alexander Burns chronicled how an Australian political consultant recently met with political strategists in Washington and suggested that American climate campaigners should enlist independent candidates to run for Congress in conservative areas, “brandishing climate action as a signature issue but shedding the label of the Democratic Party.” Byron Fay, the Australian consultant, said: “If you can find two states and 20 House races in which this can work, you change the country.”
Here in Southern California, meanwhile, a different sort of political struggle has been playing out at the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which has been roiled by bitter infighting and criminal charges against its general manager. My colleague Dorany Pineda and I reported on the recent turmoil at Central Basin, one of Southern California’s major water suppliers.
AROUND THE WEST
The recent storms have brought an above-average snowpack in the Rocky Mountains so far this winter. And that snow is expected to give a bit of a boost to the Colorado River’s drought-ravaged reservoirs. But as Alex Hager reported for KUNC, the low levels of the massive reservoirs and the severity of the Western megadrought over the last 23 years mean that many more years of heavy snow would be needed to make a serious dent.
In Utah, Caroline Tracey wrote a fascinating piece for High Country News about how environmentalists want the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to use its clout to help save the shrinking Great Salt Lake, especially by calling for water conservation in agriculture. Ben Abbott, an ecosystem scientist at Brigham Young University, said the church “could be incredibly important in calling for conservation in a way that the state government never could.”
THE ENERGY TRANSITION
Tesla has announced plans to invest $3.6 billion in battery and electric semitruck manufacturing in northern Nevada, which is set to expand the clean energy industry in the state. Gabby Birenbaum covered the announcement for the Nevada Independent.
Sammy Roth is taking a break from writing the newsletter this week while he travels in Nevada for Part 3 of Repowering the West, an L.A. Times series about how the clean energy transition is changing communities and landscapes. For a sneak peak at what’s coming next, take a look at the great photos Sammy has been sharing from Las Vegas and the road!
ONE MORE THING
Over the last several months, I’ve really enjoyed working with former Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske and our amazing team of colleagues on the series Colorado River in Crisis. One important part of the project has been telling these stories through video. I’ve been working closely with video journalist Albert Brave Tiger Lee on a series of short documentaries as part of the project. So as you read the series, please be sure to check out the videos too. Here are the parts we have released so far:
- Colorado riverkeeper says day of reckoning is here: ‘This river can’t sustain 40 million people’
- Desert suburbia is growing. But the Colorado River, and Arizona’s groundwater, cannot keep up.
In the coming days, more videos will continue to roll out on our project page along with the written pieces and podcast episodes.
I’d also like to acknowledge that in addition to our latest reporting on the Colorado River, other journalists and filmmakers have been doing tremendous work looking at the river from various angles over the last couple of years. If you’re interested in watching another documentary on the Colorado River, I’d also suggest “A River Out of Time,” directed by Ben Kraushaar and Cody Perry. The filmmakers went on a thousand-mile raft trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, retracing John Wesley Powell’s famous 1869 expedition through the Grand Canyon. It’s a fascinating journey featuring a variety of perspectives on the river and the region’s water issues. It’s now available to watch on NRS’ YouTube channel.
That’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, or previous editions, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues. For more climate and environment news, follow @ByIanJames and @Sammy_Roth on Twitter.
Toward a more sustainable California
Get Boiling Point, our newsletter exploring climate change, energy and the environment, and become part of the conversation — and the solution.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.