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The Colorado River is a striking example of climate crises
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The Colorado River is a striking example of climate crises


As world leaders meet in Scotland this week to discuss efforts to address the climate crisis, experts are urging greater focus on adapting to fundamental shifts in the planet’s water supplies — and they’re pointing to the Colorado River as a prime example.

The river is a vital water source that supplies 40 million people between Denver and Los Angeles. It has continued to shrink and sent reservoirs sinking toward critical low levels. This is despite years of extremely dry conditions, which were exacerbated by higher temperatures. To water resiliency advocates who are attending the United Nations conference, the river’s plight stands out as one of the world’s starkest cases of a major water source that is being ravaged by the altered climate, and where efforts to adapt haven’t been nearly enough.

“To me, it is the best example globally of how things can go badly,” said John Matthews, executive director and co-founder of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation. “I can easily point to the Colorado as a place where we only have hard choices now.”

Rain clouds above Lake Mead

A whitish-colored “bathtub ring” on Lake Mead’s banks indicates how much its water level has dropped.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

His group is one among a number nongovernmental organizations that are participating in a series of water discussionsIncluding talks on how humanity can adapt in a climate of supercharged droughts and floods.

Matthews stated that the Colorado River water crisis is due to fundamental problems in Hoover Dam, other infrastructure projects, and the way water supplies are divided under an antiquated and rigid system.

“We had a profound amount of ecological and hydrological hubris in how we designed things then, and how for the most part we still design things now,” Matthews said.

The Colorado River framed by the Grand Canyon

This stretch of Colorado River, which cuts through the Grand Canyon’s Grand Canyon, flows between two huge reservoirs: Lake Powell in Utah, and Lake Mead (Nevada).

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Low water is visible at the Hoover Dam

The water level in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, has dropped this year to its lowest point since Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This includes the legal structure of how the river will be divided between seven states and Mexico. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, and subsequent agreements, have long been used to overtake the river.

“The Colorado Compact is trapped in a climate that went away in 1980 or 1990, and is not coming back for at least another millennium,” Matthews said. “I think this is an old car without airbags.”

But Hoover Dam and the enormous canals that were constructed across the desert allowed for rapid population growth and economic development throughout the Southwest, from Los Angeles and Phoenix.

“It’s very serious that these reservoirs are so low. It’s akin to having overdrawn our savings account and now being out of money.”

Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council in Salt Lake City

Matthews stated that the U.S. water system was built on assumptions about how much water would come from Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Similar challenges are facing countries like Ethiopia, Turkey, and Brazil today as they plan their water infrastructure projects.

A wide view of residential community by Lake Mead.

A residential community overlooks Lake Mead. The lake supplies water to approximately 40 million people living in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The water level Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, has dropped this year to its lowest point since Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s. The reservoir in Las Vegas now holds 34% of its full potential, and the federal government has reduced it to 34%. declared a shortageFor the first time, I was able to cross the Colorado River. This has led to water cuts in Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico next year. Parts of Arizona’s farmers are preparing for cuts and may decide to dry some fields.

California could also be affected if the reservoir continues its decline as predicted.

Scientists estimate that around half the decreaseUnprecedented warming caused an increase in watershed runoff since 2000. As temperatures rise, heat-driven erosion of water supply is expected to get worse.

The story of climate change on the Colorado is really a story about less snow,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Utah Rivers Council. “Climate change is increasing winter air temperatures, which are resulting in less snow in the Utah, Colorado and Wyoming mountains that lead to less melted snowpack water that flows into the river.”

The lagoon at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

The Venetian Hotel, Casino and Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. The Colorado River is the main water source for the city and its suburbs. It is diverted from Lake Mead at nearby Hoover Dam.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s very serious that these reservoirs are so low,” Frankel said, speaking of Lake Mead and Lake Powell. “It’s akin to having overdrawn our savings account and now being out of money.”

At the annual U.N. climate meeting in Glasgow (formerly COP26), water issues are given a greater prominence.

A new water pavilionFeatures a series livestreamed discussions on water solutions. Announcing these events, Matthews and other organizers said they want to boost awareness about water’s central role in the climate crisis, and the need for action.

The conference attendees are discussing strategies such as designing water infrastructure to meet extreme climates, working with nature and floodplains to restore floodplains, and capturing flood flows for groundwater recharge. reducing greenhouse-gas emissionsThey also pump and treat water. They’re also sharing ideas about planning for more intense floods and droughts.

Campers set up on the shore of Lake Mead.

Lake Mead visitors set up camp on a spit that was once submerged.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Water is the main bleeding edge for climate adaptation, where people and economies are going to be hurt,” said conference attendee Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University and former chair of California’s state water board. “It’s where you feel the impacts of climate change first.”

Marcus said COP26 could be pivotal “for water taking its rightful place as a core issue,” and for countries to more fully incorporate water adaptation strategies in their climate policies.

Because many people are talking more about “water resilience” lately, researchers at the Pacific Institute in Oakland wrote a paper presenting a definition of the term. They defined water resilience as “the ability of water systems to function so that nature and people, including those on the frontlines and disproportionately impacted, thrive under shocks, stresses, and change.”

As for the shrinking Colorado River, Marcus said, it’s become “a very potent symbol of what’s to come, and what’s happening in other places around the world.”

Boaters on Lake Havasu.

Boaters enjoy the waters of Lake Havasu which is a reservoir of Colorado River Water that was created by construction of Parker Dam.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Lake Mead’s retreating shorelines became a backdrop representing the need for climate action last month when Vice President Kamala Harris visited to push for the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate plans.

The low water levels around Lake Mead, a federally-managed national recreation area that attracts over 8 million visitors annually, have already affected some locals who rely upon the reservoir for fishing and boating.

“The water levels have been dropping every year,” said Eric Richins, a Kingman, Ariz.-based boat operator whose company, Big Water Boating, leads fishing tours on Lake Mead. “It’s harder to access Lake Mead because the ramps you’d usually use are closed because of the low water levels.”

The seven states that depend upon the river reached an all-time high in 2019 set of agreementsIt was intended to reduce the possibility of reservoirs dropping to dangerously low levels. California, Arizona, Nevada all agreed to a series water reductions over the seven-year period.

Three letters in a hotel sign spell out "HOT."

The sign at the Hotel Del Sol in Yuma speaks volumes about the summer temperatures in the desert of southern Arizona. Scientists believe that the unprecedented warming caused half the drop in runoff in Colorado River watershed since 2000.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

White water flows through a Colorado River dam.

The Imperial Irrigation Dam is located near Yuma, Colorado. The dam, which was built between Arizona & California, diverts water to both the US and Canada.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But after two hot and extremely dry years, water officials in the three states have acknowledged that those steps won’t be sufficient. They’ve been meeting to consider next steps, which could include additional cutbacks.

Scientists have calculated that Colorado could lose approximately 5% of its population. one-fourth of its flowAs temperatures continue to rise, 2050 will be the year. In other researchFederal scientists have studied baseflow, which is the movement groundwater into watershed streams. They’ve projected that hotter, drier climate could lead to a 29% decline in baseflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin by the 2050s.

Recent studies add to the warnings scientists have been issuing. raising for yearsLearn more about how climate change is affecting rivers. Some warnings were made many decades ago.

Climate Investigations Center activists pointed to an internal Exxon memoAn intern conducted a 1979 study on the possible effects of rising carbon dioxide levels. In a bulleted list summarizing other published research on the environment effects of higher CO2 levels, the report stated: “The flow of the Colorado River would diminish and the southwest water shortage would become much more acute.” The document has been cited in court casesFor boycotting oil companies

The ghost town of St. Thomas, Nev., once was submerged in Lake Mead.

The ghost town St. Thomas, Nev. was once submerged by Lake Mead. The Colorado River water rose behind Hoover Dam and created the vast reservoir of Lake Mead.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With the river’s reservoirs continuing to decline, members of Congress convened hearings last month.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, explained what he called the “math problem” on the river.

“If we rely upon the promises of the 1920s and the 1940s, there are legal entitlements to 17.5 million acre-feet of water each year. The annual water use today is about 14 million acre feet. And over the last 20 years, the river has given us an average of 12.3 million acre-feet,” Entsminger told the House water subcommittee. “There is more and more evidence on the ground that what the Colorado River is actually facing is not drought but aridification and a permanent transition to a drier future.”

Leaders from tribes also spoke. Daryl Vigil from the Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico, was co-facilitator. Water and Tribes InitiativeAccording to, Indigenous tribes have been excluded from the decision-making process for the river for a long time and should be included in the process.

The Colorado River runs shallow enough to wade across in Yuma, Ariz.

A young man wades across a narrow stretch of the Colorado River in Yuma. Here, the river water is diverted to local agricultural fields. The canals then travel west to the fertile Imperial Valley or the coastal cities of Southern California. The river crosses into Mexico, but it runs dry before reaching Sea of Cortez.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Tribes have senior water rights to at least 25% of the current natural flow of the Colorado River but have historically been excluded from decision-making or ‘consulted’ only after decisions have been made,” Vigil said in written testimony. “It is time to create a new paradigm for governing the use of the Colorado River — one that integrates best available science and Indigenous knowledge of the basin. And one that involves tribes as active partners.”

Others stressed the importance of stepping up the pace of talks on additional measures, saying the government hasn’t put in place a default plan if the states don’t reach a collaborative agreement quickly enough.

“The point I want to emphasize is the need for speed,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado law school and a former Interior Department official. “It’s just not clear that the river will allow the current pace of discussions to continue without devastating consequences.”


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