GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — For the third time this decade, environmental group American Rivers named the Lower Colorado River as the nation’s most endangered in its annual report.
According to American Rivers’ report, the Lower Colorado River provides drinking water for one out of 10 Americans, serving the sprawling cities of Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix, among others. More than 35 million people rely on it daily.
The river also provides widespread irrigation systems, accounting for around 90 percent of the nation’s winter vegetable crops. After beginning its path through the Southwest at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, so much water is drawn out of the river for industrial, agricultural and municipal uses that it dries up before it reaches it outlet at the Gulf of California.
Demand for more and more water from these states, which have been managing drought conditions for the better part of a decade, is far outstripping the river’s water supply, leading to the need for crucial water management plans. The Lower Colorad River was also identified as the country’s most endangered river in 2013 and 2015, when report authors cited outdated water management plans in the face of growing demand and persistent drought.
“The Colorado is an incredibly important river for the economic and environmental welfare of the nation,” American Rivers President Bob Irvin said in an interview.
A 2013 report by the Bureau of Reclamation found that not only is there not enough water in the Colorado River to support current needs, but the flow could be reduced sharply — as much as 30 percent — by 2050 because of global climate change. Last August, the agency reported that there was at least a 50 percent chance that water levels in Lake Mead would drop enough to require a mandatory water shortage declaration, which would in turn force restrictions on water use in the lower basin.
Water levels have since recovered, thanks to a wet winter, but the water level in Lake Mead’s reservoir is still hovering around 40 percent, and is likely to drop further this summer.
Matt Rice, Lower Colorado Basin director for American Rivers, said above-average snow melt may stave off a water shortage declaration for a couple of years, but a more permanent solution is necessary to prevent scrambling efforts to push a plan through later.
“One good winter does not stabilize a system,” Rice said in an interview. “One of the points we want to get across is that this is exactly the right time to push a drought contingency plan across the finish line, because we have a little bit of space with the hydrology this year basin wide.”
Not only does the river support 4 million acres of farmland, as well as sensitive ecosystems and wildlife — it also brings in nearly $30 billion per year in recreation and tourism dollars.
Amy Kober, American Rivers’ senior communication director, said looming cuts to federal agencies and the elimination of environmental regulations by the Trump administration also pose serious threats to the river’s overall health.
“The takeaway is that we can’t dam our way out of these problems,” she said. “We need 21st century water management solutions. We need political support and funding for water conservation.”
Kober urges Congress to reject Trump’s proposed cuts and ensure full funding for clean water and river conservation efforts.
“Clean water should be a bipartisan issue,” she said. “We all depend on it, our children depend on it, future generations depend on it.”
The report identifies the United States’ 10 most endangered rivers every year, taking into consideration the significance of the river to human and natural communities, the magnitude of the threat to the river and its nearby communities, and a major decision that the public can help influence in the coming year. American Rivers has been compiling the report since 1984.
The Colorado River has been designated America’s most endangered river four times since 2003.