May 25, 2024

The’very dry’ reality of the Colorado River crisis hits the American West

The Colorado River, also known as the “American Nile,” is an extremely important water source for many people in the western United States and neighbouring Mexico.

Unfortunately, the waterway that runs for 2,330 kilometres (1,450 miles) from its source in Colorado to the Gulf of California is in trouble. River levels have dropped to record lows due to years of intense drought exacerbated by climate change, increasing populations, and heavy water use in agriculture.

Cities, states, farmers, and Indigenous communities all have a stake in finding solutions to the severe water shortage that Washington declared in August 2021 in the Colorado River basin.

Unless significant reductions are made in the seven states that make up the upper and lower basins of the Colorado River, scientists warn that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest US reservoirs, could dry up.

Millions of people in Mexico and the seven US states that share the Colorado River basin would be impacted, including farmers. These states are Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a freshwater expert with the United Nations Environment Programme, discusses the crisis on the Colorado River, water shortages around the world, and potential solutions with Al Jazeera.

In August of last year, Lis Mullin Bernhardt said, “dead pool” conditions were looming over Lake Mead and Lake Powell. As a result, water levels in those two dams would drop to an unacceptable level, blocking further downstream flow.

Because Lake Mead is the largest artificial reservoir in the United States, and Lake Powell is the second largest, this is of utmost importance. Many areas of the American West and Mexico rely on their water supplies. Those storage facilities are crucial.

Paradoxically, water has always been scarce in the American West. The climate is extremely dry. The population has skyrocketed in this desert region. There is no doubt that the local population and various uses are putting a significant strain on the area’s limited water resources.

The Western United States, and particularly the state of California, serves as the nation’s “fruit basket” and “breadbasket,” respectively. The agricultural irrigation practises are extremely demanding on the available water supply. Population growth, coupled with unsustainable agricultural practises, is a major contributor to this problem, which is exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

When Al Jazeera asked, “What does it mean to be in a drought?”

When Al Jazeera asked, "What does it mean to be in a drought?"

There is a drought, Bernhardt says, if water or moisture levels remain low for two consecutive quarters, or six months.

The American West has been experiencing increasingly dry conditions for the past two decades; the region is now experiencing extreme drought. That’s the aridification we’re talking about. This new, extremely dry normal is here to stay, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Arabic News Network Al Jazeera: If you’re suddenly faced with the prospect of drastically reducing your water consumption, how do you adjust to this?

Bernhardt: I think we’re seeing [people and places adapt], like switching from a green lawn to a desert lawn or a rock lawn, or modifying their homes to collect and reuse rainwater. The use of low-flush toilets and water-saving showerheads has been around for quite some time. Many of these can be adopted with minimal adjustment to present routines.

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There are other things that, in my opinion, are more important. Most of the water we extract from the ground is used for agriculture and food production. Drip irrigation, which only waters each plot with as much water as is required by the crop grown there, is one simple way to reduce water consumption without sacrificing yield. Safely reusing wastewater in agricultural settings is another option.

More importantly, I believe that consumers need to educate themselves and put pressure on food and beverage manufacturers to develop products that use less water. It has become clear that some crops, despite their potential economic importance, should not be cultivated in water-scarce regions. A major part of the solution, in my opinion, lies in agriculture and related fields.

In addition to the factors you’ve already mentioned, what else goes into the allocation of water from the Colorado River, Al Jazeera?

Bernhardt: The Colorado River is fascinating because of its longstanding legal claims to water diversions. Water rights, or the legal right to use a specified amount of water, have long been held by local farmers and indigenous peoples.

Part of the problem is that the amount of water in the Colorado River basin was overestimated when those laws were written a century ago (PDF). The local Native American communities also never consumed all of the water to which they were entitled. The river would have run dry 30 years ago if that had happened.

Consequently, indigenous peoples play a crucial role by conserving water and acting as a kind of intermediary in defending the river’s legal standing. The river has the same right as any other living thing that depends on it to have enough water to stay alive and thrive.

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