Disappearing Act: The Future of the Colorado River

Over the last few decades, we have seen th­e Las Vegas Valley go through many changes. We have seen a growth in population, commercial developments, and changes in the physical and economic landscape. With this social and economic boom came increasing worry regarding the amount of water used in the city. As the population began to grow, the water level in Lake Mead, the Colorado River’s largest reservoir that provides the city with 90% of its water, began to decrease. It was for this reason that the city decided to take bold steps towards water conservation.

In 2002 the Valley saw the implementation and enforcement of strict water regulations. These regulations were put in place to make residents and businesses conserve water. According to Diana Diaz of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, through the use of rigorous watering schedules, and incentives to introduce water smart landscaping, the Valley was able to conserve 88 billion gallons of water since 1999.

Conserving water became so successful that many began to see it as a lifestyle. But, as the Valley was overcome with conservation craze the white ring surrounding Lake Mead became more apparent. Despite the great strides Southern Nevada had achieved towards conservation, the water level kept decreasing.

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The Colorado River is the only body of water in the Southwest to provide fresh water to the seven basin states, supplying Southern Nevada, California, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, California, and Arizona.

During the last century, various pacts were reached between the seven Colorado Basin states over the allocation of water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 split the seven states into the upper basin, containing Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, and the lower basin containing Nevada, California, and Arizona. It apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet per year (MAFY) to each of the basins adding up to a total of 15 MAFY.

When the Colorado River Compact was signed, less than 30 years of stream flow data had been collected. The Colorado River Compact allocated quantities of water based on one of three wettest centuries in the River’s last 13 centuries. Wasteful water practices coupled with rising temperatures can lead to a reduction of the River’s flow from 5% to 35% by 2050.

While the Colorado River Compact requires the allocation of 15 MAFY among the basin states, the fact remains that there isn’t 15 MAFY to allocate. Today, records indicate that the average flow of the River is 14.9 MAFY, a figure exceeded by the allocation of water among the basin states and Mexico.

Conservation efforts alone are not enough to solve the water crisis that has taken hold of the Southwest. A reworking of the allocation of water and cooperation between the seven states is crucial to ensuring the longevity and prosperity of the Colorado River. While noble efforts are being taken by each state, they must collectively address the overallocation of water that is taking place.

To prevent the seemingly inevitable and catastrophic events that are beginning to occur, the governors from each of the basin states need to come together to find a solution to the allocation issue surrounding the River. We must also continue to move forward in efforts to conserve and use water more efficiently at the local level.