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Our Nation's Most Endangered River -- The Colorado

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View Doug Pflugh's blog posts
17 April 2013, 12:20 PM
Unrestrained thirst puts Colorado atop American Rivers' threat list
Management of the Colorado River remains an engineering task that seeks to wring as much water as possible out of its banks. (David Morgan / iStockphoto)

The Colorado River has been called the lifeblood of the west; it defines our geography, sustains our fish and wildlife, feeds and powers our cities. Without it, our lives and heritage would be fundamentally different—which is why Earthjustice and the conservation community have fought for years to preserve and protect this great river.

But, the thirst for Colorado River water is proving too great.

Today, American Rivers, a national river conservation organization, named the Colorado its most endangered river for 2013. This dubious distinction was well earned as decades of damming, diversion and domestication have left the river that carves the Grand Canyon a ghost of its former self.

American Rivers identifies the problem confronting the Colorado as “outdated water management.” That means 36 million people, four million acres of irrigated agriculture and a sizable chunk of industrial activity are grabbing what they can from the river. Numerous government agencies and quasi-governmental organizations divide up the available flows with little concern for the river itself and the natural communities that it supports on its long journey.

A first-come, first-served approach is abetted by an extensive set of agreements, treaties and legal decisions, but at the end of the day management of the river remains an engineering task that seeks to wring as much water as possible out of its banks. For many, the Colorado River is nothing more than a water conveyance system, transferring the snow melt of the Rockies to a useful point downstream.

Colorado River Basin Plumbing graphic. (Courtesy of High Country News)Courtesy of High Country News.
Click to enlarge.

Further, years of readily available and cheap water have lured us into practices that are at best unmindful and at worst wasteful. Often, the least conservative use of water happens in the worst places—we drain the river to bring bluegrass lawns and outdoor swimming pools to arid regions more suited to cactus and rabbit brush. Progress has been made in recent years, especially following the significant droughts of the last decade, but we have a long way to go before we can be seen as being efficient with our water use.

Change is on its way. Rapidly expanding populations throughout the region and the realities of climate change have made it clear to those who control the river that the status quo cannot continue—the river is no longer seen as a limitless supply.

But, the shape of things to come remains an open question. Will we see the coming “water crisis” as an opportunity to fundamentally alter our approach to the Colorado River, seeing it as a living system rather than just plumbing? Or will we just get more effective at draining the lifeblood of the west?

Hopefully, we will have the foresight and political will to seize the opportunity before us and move towards a sustainable future that includes a living river and healthy communities.

American Rivers’ listing of the Colorado as most endangered is an opportunity to jumpstart efforts to shift the river management to a better path. Significant efforts already are being launched and there is some progress. The conservation community and others who have not traditionally played a leading role in environmental protection (such as Protect the Flows and Nuestro Rio) are forcefully engaging in the process.

However, we face a long path forward and no guarantee of success and right now there are a river and natural systems to protect. Earthjustice has worked with our clients and partners for many years to keep the Colorado flowing as a healthy river. Our priorities include:

  • Opposing new, unnecessary diversions from the Colorado and its tributaries, such the Flaming Gorge Pipeline water grab; we are monitoring water development proposals throughout the region.
  • Providing for habitat and river conditions that allow native species like the Humpback Chub to flourish.
  • Ensuring that energy development in the Colorado River basin (including speculative oil shale production and oil gas development in special places such as the Roan Plateau) does not adversely impact water quality and quantity.
  • Fighting to keep special places that feed and depend on the river wild. In particular, efforts to protect the heart of the basin—the Grand Canyon—from harmful uranium mining and our long running and successful roadless rule campaign are off-river efforts that provide for the future health of the Colorado.

We applaud American Rivers and its partners for their listing today and support the efforts of all those who are working to protect the Colorado River. We will continue to do our part to keep the lifeblood of the west flowing and healthy. McCrystie Adams, attorney in Earthjustice's Rocky Mountain regional office, said:

American Rivers’ designation highlights the importance of this once-mighty river and the scale of the threat to its survival. The Colorado has been squeezed to its breaking point and faces an uncertain future.

Despite the risk, though, we can restore this river so that it once again supports resilient habitat for native fish, birds, and other wildlife, and provides for the people and communities who depend upon it. We need to start using water more wisely through common sense and cost-effective conservation and water sharing programs.

The time to dam, divert, and demand more than the Colorado River can give has passed. We do have time to change course and protect this river if we make it a priority and work together.

Follow Doug on Twitter at @dpflugh_ej

In his book RIVER NOTES, Wade Davis gives the bottom-line cause of this depletion. A quote from the book: ".....But growing food for the region's cattle requires more than 10 times the water used by all the area's cities and industries combined—nearly half the flow of the entire Colorado. "Indeed the entire water crisis in the American West," he concludes, "essentially comes down to cows eating alfalfa in a landscape where neither really belongs."

Absolutely! Animal agriculture is a squanderer of many valuable resources, a prolific producer of toxic waste, and a threat to our health and wellbeing.

So which is it the world bank or our own arrogant stupidity or perhaps both , either way after 3 days you and your uncontrolable ego will start to die and this problem has been going on a lot longer than that, so flush away your childrens future.Remember if you can't make more water, then you better stop making more water wasters. If you think we are not talking about you, you have identifide yourself as the problem. figure it out retards. If you find this offensive try watching a child die of thirst.

If the question is: “Why didn’t they warn us?”

Then the answer has to be: “The problem was purposely kept from public exposure by the greedy people who benefited from the non disclosure.”

This “discovery” and the expose that it prompted was predicted a long time ago. The problem has been ignored for too long, and it may even be too late to prevent future WATER RATIONING in Las Vegas and the cities close to the Hoover Dam, and all the other benefactors that are served by the Colorado River system.

It took a lot of money to promote the development of millions of homes that are now dependant on that water. If you are really serious about finding out why the Colorado River was named as the most Endangered River, then keep this advise in mind --- FOLLOW THE MONEY.

Harsh but good commentary on the political-developer cronyism on display in the killing of the great Colorado River. Not only has its demise been predicted in the face of massive development, but it was totally predictable when all this started.

Ironic in a way this is posted the day before Earth Day 2013 - over four decades after repeated efforts to raise environmental consciuusness and the old earth and its resources continue to be abused - global warming, climate change, imperiled oceans and marine life, XL pipeline, fracking, Pebble Mine, the Colorado - it goes on and on - all we can do is keep up the good fight and hope for change -

I am so moved by your description and video. I grew up in the West, fished the headwaters of the Grand Red Colorado, photographed its canyons in Utah, floated through the Grand Canyon with my daughter. This river is a part of me. It is painful to see how wounded it is. Nothing more can be tolerated.

Sad-sad sadly, we have MAINSTREAM CORPORATE OWNED MEDIA to thank for 'they didn't tell us," plus a (sociopathic) mininformation (aka lies) campaign by minions of billionaire capitalists (Kock Bros for instance), plus miseducation about scienice (ALEC foundation, a front of Koch Bros). This must have been thought of and rejected for reasons, but -- WHAT IF ALL ECO-ACTIVIST AND RESEARCH GROUPS (.orgs) PURCHASED MAINSTREAM MEDIA TIME ESPECIALLY RE: CLIMATE AND WATER ISSUES. Op eds weekly in major papers. Charlie Rose. Bill O'Reilly time???: We wind up well covered in online news (Ntion of Change, or truthout, Mother Jones) and some magazines (Rolling Stone, New Yorker, Scientific American of course), but these are not 'as mainstream as we need to be to impact the misled electorate. We wind up preaching to the choir. Example, My husgand and I and some 40,000 others gathered in Washington DC for the /Sierra Club organized demoinstration about the Keystone pipe and Greenhouse effect in general, as well as fracking and more, and this was given barely any coverage mainstream...Nobody in Atlanta GA saw this in the news. It did make other news that a handful of leaders had been arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence. The actual demonstration, the number and range of ages and home addresses of people (from as far as Montana), was little noted mainstream. And as far as I know, not mentioned by the President, who was out of town. If the media DO cover eco-issues they are covered as controversy. Not with substantive information of the actual issues.

It all begins in the education system. They broke down the school systems in collusion with state, county and city governments, to ensure our children (the Non-rich) are not aware of how government works. Without a social conscious and an awareness of how government works, our children are spending their time on video games. I manage a huge garden while my daughter plays Farmville. It created an interest but she lacks even the basic understanding of how to grow things. Without this, she cannot ever follow through beyond her original investment in a garden. It grows a lot easier on Farmville. What are they teaching in school???

Many truly believe they have no responsibility to anyone but themselves. It's like a nation of zombies. They see it on TV or in a movie and they want it instantly. They emulate whatever they see they like. Eating garbage at fast food outlets. This instant and total information age has the capability of solving all the world's problems but only the wealthy seems to be using it with any effectiveness. They create a alternate reality that is easy to escape into instead of dealing with the real world.

I raised my children to believe in law and order. From age 5 and 6, we took self defense classes and they continued their education through to law enforcement careers. They began their lives being taught to not back down from bullies and always stand up for others and justice. They had good and true motives in deciding their career choices. By the time they had graduated and begun the careers, I began to notice a change in them. Something happened to their attitude. One of them challenged me when I said that the prison rehabilitation system sucked. I was told 'rehabilitation' was for rich people, this is a prison system to punish offenders. This seems to be a result of mass hypnosis from the media owners. Many of our children think food comes from the grocery store!

What our children lack is any relationship to NATURE. They cannot connect to the real world in big cities. Television shapes their whole world. They have no patience, they want it NOW. Birdwatching should be taught in all schools just to teach patience.

What we truly need is to hook up small towns to bring stability to regions to create areas that are reachable and affordable for the poor people that use our parks. Make sure there are learning opportunities everywhere. By taking back the water, we will take control of our lives again. Water is our greatest asset.

After much discussion, I realized that they are being trained by a great many people and some of them are idiots. We must spend more money TRAINING AND EDUCATING our law enforcement teachers. We have to get them back to "SERVE AND PROTECT". The War on Drugs has almost turned us into a police state. Do we spend as much on arresting rich coke addicts as we spend on arresting pot smokers? Hemp used to be the main product in the Midwest. Now, it's used to make money for the police while imprisoning citizens at great cost to the state and the families involved. Educate these kids before they develop the need for 'escapism'. Nature is what they are missing. A connection to the real world is what is missing. We need to make environmental spending the largest part of our budget. The main thing our security forces need to be protecting is our environment. Our water! Our land!

Just venting. It's all inter-related and no one seems to see it.

Any efforts to solve problems like the Colorado river must include strong government policy in that direction. But that is not happening. Environmental policies today are not characteristic of what is needed. There is no sense of emergency. And whether this is so not to scare people, it never the less is a stand with their back to reality. It seems that the cost (externalities) of creating or allowing a few jobs to be created is way out of balance with nature. We need much stronger leadership with respect to our relationship with supreme natural resources like the Colorado River, and in general every other aspect of our local and global environmental predicaments.

As a former resident and professional working in water quality in
Arizona, nothing in this is news, nothing is surprising.

Unfortunately, water problems in the southwest started long before the Colorado River was being drained, with the overuse of other surface and groundwater for irrigated agriculture. Using the Colorado River for agriculture was supposed to "save" the other water, but they forgot to first ban the use of groundwater and put limits on the use of remaining surface water.

So, almost all the water was used or contaminated, and the Colorado was diverted to being almost the only source of drinking water for
millions of people. At this point, all the environmental regulations in the world will not save the Colorado River as long
as the desert is over-populated.

Even worse for the people who live in Arizona, as the Colorado River
continues to weaken and demand for water continues to grow, they will get less water, not only from the river, but because California
has "first dibs" on it.

John Wesley Powell noted more than 140 years ago, the the West could not support more than 5 figures worth of humans (I'm vague here, because I read his words last century! But I'm at the right order of magnitude.the populations and irrigation for cows and poisoning of mining exceed this by a thousandfold or more)

There are five institutional Colorado River swallowers, and Phoenix alone has the highest number of golf courses per capita in the world. Las Vegas ("the meadows" in Spanish)bloated to foully huge monstrosity in just 3 decades. It now grasps at the deep underlying life of the Nevada basin/range country, so the greed, evil, and death is lengthenig like nightfall's shadows.

Few of you care about the changes at the mouth, in El Mar de Cortez and Sonora/Baja California that result. The vaquita, the birds, the organisms of the delta, these and their world, equally valid to the biologically impoverished cities of humans that so many treasure above life itself, they diminish inexorably without hope.

As a longtime traveler of all these areas and more, observing from the point of view of biology, conservation, and regarding the original inhabitants as of worth, as sacred, I present these values to you, and will observe your responses and their scope. Your own values, your own value on this Earth, might be modified. Will you do this?

Good luck. That might actually put people to work, and the GOP ain't buying that while Obama or any other Dem is President.

It wouldn't matter who was President, the Republicans are not interested in our environment except to exploit it. I appealed to Missourians in newspaper blogs for people to buy the horses that were being sold for slaughter during the drought in Texas and it resulted in a woman trying to build a horse slaughter plant in Missouri. So far, she has been stopped by the areas she has tried to put this plant. As far as I am concerned, people like her need to watched. A vulture sitting in wait to create havoc. To cruelly make a profit off of animals that are smarter than she is. There is something terribly wrong with these people. It's frightening to imagine that these people might have children or elderly in their lives. Thank God Cannibalism isn't legal here.

I take issue with the teaser in the e-mail publicizing this essay: To intimate that the Colorado and San Pedro are themselves "critical" is a misnomer. I have never met a river, in any part of the country, that isn't "critical." Please avoid using superlatives like this. You needn't sell me.

Factor in the recently acquired knowledge that the first half of the 20th Century was the wettest (by far) that the area comprising the western United States has been in several thousand years and it quickly becomes clear that the status quo of water rights and water use cannot be maintained.

Must've been thirty-five years ago my wife and I, in Mexico, drove along what was once the Colorado River Delta. There was no water in it. This is thirty-five years ago!


What I see in the Colorado river, needs to be fixed ,Its up to the government to fix the problem. If the government can't fix the problem it's up to the people ,to fix this problem The truth of this matter is with out water their will be no Colorado . I don't know were you will go from your home to another place.There will be no houses no fish no food, no life in Colorado To all the people rich or poor must fix this problem. Or you must leave Colorado.

The problems with the Colorado River are worse south and west of Colorado, in Arizona, Nevada and southern California. They survive
on water from the Colorado and live in a combination of a dream world and a state of apathy that somehow the Colorado River water will always be there.

America is a greedy and wasteful nation. We destroy every thing that God has given us . We can,t ever get enough. America needs the wisdom of the Native Americans have for the land and nature. Take care of the land, rivers, streams and wild life. Don,t destroy these things to satisfy your lust.and greed. Wise up before it is to late.

We cannot continue to rape what God gave us and expect no consequences! You can't take more than what's put in it's physically impossible for the water sources to provide more than they were ever intended to. There needs to be a required reclaimed water in areas, & controlled development (maybe that would also help the housing situation if all you had was a house already built)

No god has given you this land - you took it from Coyote, from root and grass and Rattlesnake, you took it from Shoshone, Ute, Hopi, To'ono Oodham, you took it from Hawk and Antelope, Jaguar, Puma, Catfish, Minnow, Horned Lizard, Tortoise, by the gun.

Since that seems to be the way god is spelled, g-u-n, such arrogant proprietary attitudes as these anthropocentric comments expose themselves:
just more of the same is in store, until humility is imposed upon the arrogant.

Two critical Southwest rivers, the Colorado and the San Pedro, are being drained dry by excessive demand, and one of them—the Colorado—was just named America's most endangered river. Only strong legal and regulatory action will keep them flowing.

The government needs to do its job and regulate and conserve these vital waterways.

We are an ungrateful species. I give strength to the few of us with foresight to turn us all around before we destroy the earth.

Consider the Connection to:
Environmental Conservation CTC2 [RIVERS]

Consider the Connection to:
Environmental Conservation CTC2 [RIVERS]

It's all in the numbers. We cannot keep taking out more than goes in. When we are at the lowest point and the truth is inescapable, the parched will say, "Why didn't they warn us?"

Unfortunately, the western part of the country is controlled by the money-hungry Republicans. They are NOT Teddy Roosevelt, or anyone else like him who cares about the National Parks or preserving our beautiful gifts from God. They cut and run back to the bank.

Do not be fooled for one minute.....pointing the finger to blame one particular group is why our country is in the mess
It's in. Everyone is to blame...we are wasteful nation, and greed is everywhere. It's unfortunate that stories like this are not all over the news on a daiy basis. We as a nation need to get down to the business that's important for the future of our children/ grandchildren.
Someone tell me, what is wrong with everyone that we are not screaming louder because of what is happening to these rivers? And don't think it's not happening elsewhere like Michigan.

Yeah! Those "Republicans" like Hickenlooper of Colorado (D), Brown of California (D), and Bullock of Montana (D). Oh...wait....

Wow! I'm a teacher. About twenty years ago, I developed and taught a unit on America's Waterways to high school students. I remember teaching students about the demands placed on the Colorado and how problematic that was for the health of the river. I went back to grad school, got some new credentials, and am now working in elementary schools as a reading specialist but I try to keep up with areas of interest. It just breaks my heart to learn that the Colorado is suffering its last gasp. Once again, I lament and fear the shortsightedness of our practices and policies as we destroy the very planet we inhabit. Super scary.

Amen! You're spot on with your opinion. I, as a almost 60 year fly fisherman have fished several stream/rivers in Co. and am saddened by the overuse that has been allowed by state govt's on behalf of foolish development.Money rules...and the those vested interests are not ever for the benefit of the majority. God save the Republic.

Greed, Greed, and More Greed. Leave alone the marvelous rivers in Colorado and other places as well. Too much building and spitefulness. This land is ours and those that do not care will find themselves in deep straits and losing our wonderful rivers and streams. All of God's Glory belongs to him. Everything doesn't belong to those that have everything. We do want a healthy and precious comodity.

Here's to all the future, may it be kept healthy for all.

We are desert dwellers yet our local governments keep on pushing for more housing. More housing means more demand for precious water!
Time for a Moratorium. The Colorado River needs time to replenish!

Wow! The Almighty's elements are God's gifts to use wisely for the benefit of all mankind--not a few who think signing a paper of devilish ownership and having the almighty dollar & tools can give them ultimate-uncaring ownership over all mankind and all of mankind's land & resources--and I don't care what the reason's may be. Arlo Guthrie said it well for all Americans--"This land is everybody's land--from the Red Wood Forests to Gulf Stream Waters--from Colorado to the New York Islands. (God)made this land for You and Me' not a few destroying diggers with the moola. Devastating land making it ultimately irreparable, is comparable to the Grenoble devastation in Russia.
Why do we allow a few people to control as their own, a land that is rightfully all of mankind's--
destroying and destroying the only earthland we have and have no way of giving back to the land. I call this 'a devilish ambition', a bad thing with no good land investment forseen in the future. God, how I dread for our children's future on this land if such destruction is continued unchecked.

My sentiments exactly,Roman. This is a lesson ALL of us need to relearn; we can do it the hard way (running out of resources) or the easy way (act to bring back into balance our sustainable use of the planet).

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