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Troubled Waters: Colorado River Crisis – River Rescue

This entire month, we've taken you to the Rocky Mountains, followed the water, and dived into the intricacies of the crisis of the Colorado River. Experts have said we are at a critical juncture. A wet winter has eased some pressure on policymakers, but the overarching issue of chronic overuse is still a problem waiting in the wings.

"Right now, what we're facing is a situation where we are consuming more water on an average annual basis than we are producing in the system. And so that's just the definition of a non-sustainable situation," said Mark Squillace, a professor of law and director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado School of Law. "We need to figure out ways to reduce our consumption...we need to look more holistically at the whole river system and ask everybody to contribute to solving the problem."

Officials say negotiations on using less water have become "fractious and difficult" in the past. So what are the possible solutions?

"The world is made of water," said Kathryn Blitz, the owner of Wild West Voyages. "Everything beautiful in this world happens probably because of water. So there's little doubt that human beings are drawn to it."

People have been using Colorado River water for millennia. But because of human-driven climate change and chronic overuse, water levels are dropping to new levels.

"When you start pulling dead bodies from lake mead, at some point, that gets people's attention," said Balaji Rajagopalan, a professor of hydrology at UC Boulder.

Lake Mead is the nation's largest reservior near Hoover Dam and a major source of water for California. Policymakers have portioned out more water than there actually is in the river. But, in part due to a lucky year of rain and snowpack in 2023, California, Arizona and Nevada have agreed to take temporary cutbacks.

A lot of that -- is the f-word. 

"It means fallowing farmland, not farming," said Bart Fisher, a Palo Verde farmer and head of the Palo Verde Irrigation District. 

Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley farmers have agreed to fallow their lands. And in exchange for water reduction, different Coachella Valley groups are receiving up to $36 million from the federal government, including the Coachella Valley Water District -- which voted in early November to stop aquifer replenishment over the next few years.

But all of this is only a band-aid until 2026 to keep water levels steady. The seven states that use the Colorado River have to find a permanent solution beyond that. 

When asked to compare the solutions negotiations to a baseball game, Squillace stressed that policy makers are still in the early stages of working things out. 

"We're still in the first few innings right now trying to address this problem. We've got a long way to go," Squillace said.

But some ideas floated include renegotiating the 1922 Colorado River Compact deciding who gets water first. But California, which has senior rights and holds about half of all water users, is not budging and defending the current legal framework, saying the compact is the bedrock of the law of the river. The Imperial Irrigation District, which receives the most water from the Colorado River, has said it is absolutely​ against it. 

"Everybody should realize if there is less water in the river, we should all proportionately share in the reduction," said Rajagoppalan.

With farmers using 80% of all river water, some question particularly thirsty crops, like alfalfa.

"Much of that [alfalfa] is being exported to foreign countries Asia, Saudi Arabia and other places in the Middle East," said Squillace. "And so, if you told people in California and Arizona that they were exporting their water to Asia and the Middle East, I think they would not be happy about that."

Alfalfa is a big business worth billions. In early October, Arizona's governor canceled state land leases for Saudi-owned farms growing alfalfa for the Middle East.

In California, about 40% of alfalfa grown is shipped to Asia and the Middle East. One solution proposed is that farmers harvest alfalfa fewer times a year. Alfalfa can be harvested up to 11 times per year, according to UC Davis.

Here at the Hoover Dam, water leaders in Nevada said Las Vegas has the right idea.

According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the city has reduced river water use by 31% over the past 20 years all while increasing its population by 50%.

"We recycle and reuse every drop of indoor water that occurs in Las Vegas," said Bronson Mack of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "Everything that goes down the drain, showers, sinks, toilets, dishes doesn't matter. All of that water gets reclaimed. We treat that water to near drinking water standards and return it back to Lake Mead."

The city is leading the way in water efficiency and hoping others will follow.

Other ideas floated have offered up desalination plants and even building a pipeline from the Mississippi River -- which often has too much water and can flood cities along the shoreline.

But those ideas are often dismissed as too expensive.

The clock is ticking for states and tribes. While there is breathing room from our wet year, we still have to figure out how to not take more than what nature can give...

"With so much in a semi-arid dry desert like place, we are still thriving," said Rajagopalan. "That tells you something about our ingenuity, but that also can push us into into arrogance."

It's a lesson people in the Southwest could pay dearly for if policy makers don't work out a solution, both sustainable and responsible, come 2026.

This series was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.


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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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