Seven States Vye for Water: The Colorado River Crisis in the American West

Written by
Claire Kaufman
Aug. 11, 2022

by Claire Kaufman, MPA '23 for Annotations Blog

The Colorado River is one of the most important water sources for the country, but also the most endangered. I saw firsthand evidence of the danger when I drove through the Southwest last year; bathtub rings around the shrinking reservoirs show the stark contrast of where water used to be and is no longer. And recently, dystopian-esque bodies and cars have been uncovered as water levels drop to record lows. The reservoirs holding much of the drinking, irrigation, and industrial water for the Southwest are currently less than 30% full - down from 95% full in 2000 - and water levels have dropped by over 50 feet in just two years. 

Lake Mead, declining sea levels shown by NASA satellite images
A comparison of natural-color images of Lake Mead acquired on July 6, 2000; July 8, 2021; and July 3, 2022, shows mineralized areas of the lakeshore that were formerly underwater when the reservoir was filled closer to capacity. (Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory)

Over-allocation and climate change have created a dire situation for the over 40 million people that rely on the Colorado River, including many of the largest and fastest growing cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, and Los Angeles. The drought also jeopardizes millions of acres of farmland, electricity millions rely on from hydropower, rich ecosystems, and over 16 million jobs

In June 2022, seven states were told to make a plan immediately to cut their water usage from the Colorado River by 2 to 4 million acre-feet next year. This nearly incomprehensible number – enough to cover all of Connecticut in a foot of water – demonstrates one of the most ongoing and visceral effects of climate change the U.S. has experienced so far. 

Map of the Colorado River Basin
Map of the Colorado Basin

If states don’t get a deal done before mid-August, the government has threatened to step in. However, instead of forcing water users to vye for access to humanity’s most precious resource, the federal government needs to coordinate a response that ensures equitable water allocation, conservation, and adaptation, while continuing to aggressively address climate change. The Wildfire Response and Drought Resilience Act, which just passed the House, would begin to tackle this challenge with over $500 million in discretionary funds to support the Colorado River system. 

The Colorado Quandary

The first official allocation of Colorado River water was made in 1922 between states in the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and states in the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California). Unfortunately, the division was determined during an abnormally wet year. So although there are 15 million acre-feet of annual water rights on paper, in reality there are only about 12 million acre-feet – and declining. The decrease has been exacerbated by thinner snowpacks, declining precipitation, and increasing temperatures due to climate change. The past 23 years have been the driest ever recorded in the Colorado River Basin. If the Colorado River continues to run out of water, the effects will be felt throughout the US and the world, especially as people migrate to places with more secure water supplies. 

To cope with the river's decline, states have negotiated voluntary and temporary deals for reductions. In August 2021 the first-ever formal shortage was declared, which led to cuts in water (mostly for agriculture) in Arizona and Nevada because they hold more junior water rights. If water levels stay low, which seems likely, a new level of restrictions will be triggered in Arizona, Nevada, Mexico and California in January 2023. And now, states are working to come up with a new plan for reductions that will entail a lot of compromise and difficult decision-making.

Shot of Lake Mead, showing the "bathtub rings" that indicate dropping water levels

A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line near Hoover Dam on Lake Mead from the Arizona side, Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Chitose Suzuki / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @chitosephoto

Big Ideas, Little Time

Instead of looking for a single panacea, like the highly expensive and controversial ideas of importing water via pipeline from the Mississippi or Missouri rivers, or building a desalination plant on the Gulf of California or the Pacific Coast, the Colorado River needs an “all of the above” approach to address the massive drought that is funded and coordinated by the federal government. This coordinated suite of strategies might include: 

  • Water law reform to address the inequitable doctrine of ‘prior appropriation’, which allocates water rights based on ‘first-come first-serve’ and ‘use it or lose it’. Instead, water should be allocated based on best use, and water should be able to move more freely with flexible water markets.
  • Water conservation policies that drawdown usage, including mandatory water reductions for certain activities (like watering lawns or industry use), land use and urban design policies (like requirements to collect and store stormwater or restricting green lawns), and groundwater regulation.
  • Investment in water conservation technology, both in R&D and deployment, including in irrigation, water reuse, rainwater catchment, and desalination.
  • Support for a just transition and equitable adaptation for people and farmers in the Southwest through fostering community resilience and ensuring water as a human right. 

There are already some success stories; despite population growth, cities in the American West consume significantly less water today thanks to investments in water-savings technologies and conservation. In California, some water districts are experimenting with paying farmers to temporarily fallow fields or plant crops that are less water intensive. Various cities have restricted watering lawns, and many are attempting to regulate groundwater pumping

The Colorado River needs an "all of the above" approach to address the massive drought that is funded and coordinated by the federal government.

We need a coordinated federal response to pull together this patchwork of solutions. The $8 billion allocated to western water infrastructure in the 2021 Infrastructure Law is an important first step, but there’s room for more. This is the time to turn a crisis into a moment of equitable adaptation and progress. A chance to come together to address the realities of climate change in the U.S.. An opportunity to acknowledge that water is life, and a shortage of water somewhere affects life everywhere. 

Another shot of Lake Mead, taken by Claire Kaufman

A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line on Lake Mead in January 2021. (Claire Kaufman)

August 11, 2022: This is an evolving situation. To stay up-to-date on the Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-August ultimatum, the Wildfire Response and Drought Resilience Act, and everything else Colorado River-related, follow Circle of Blue for updates.

Headshot of Claire Kaufman, MPA '23
Meet the Author: Claire Kaufman

Claire Kaufman is an MPA '23 student at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs. She is passionate about equitable climate mitigation and adaptation, environmental justice, and sustainable cities. Her previous roles include sustainability, planning, and transportation policy advising for the former mayor of Tucson Arizona; green business consulting; environmental grantmaking; and distributed renewable energy research. Originally from Los Angeles, Claire holds a B.S. from UC Berkeley and in her free time enjoys yoga, writing, and anything outside.