The Colorado River is in perilous danger, which could mean disaster for the almost 32 million people who rely on it for drinking water and irrigation.

In fact, the storied river has already been shockingly altered. Long-term drought in the American Southwest has made the Colorado River a symbol of the dangers that the changing climate can pose. The lowered levels of the river not only threaten local habitats, it alters the region’s water supply and, in many areas, its energy supply via hydropower. That doesn’t even start to factor in less pressing changes in recreation and ecological services.

A Former Giant

The 1,400-mile river cuts through seven states and many dams before it flows into Mexico and drains into the Gulf of California. The upper portion of the river provides the majority of the water for the Colorado River basin. Much of it originates as precipitation and melting snow in the Rockies and the Wasatch Mountains.

Colorado RiverA series of dams along the river provide flood control, create power, and are intended to help water conservation along the river. However, depleted water levels are starting to complicate things. Lakes created by the dams on the Colorado River, such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are sitting at fractions of where they once were. Both have regularly been below 50 percent of their capacity.

In 2014, Lake Powell sat half full and had lost 4.4 trillion gallons of water. Lake Mead was at 39 percent of its capacity, having lost 5.6 trillion gallons. With the region’s long-term drought, this desperate state has become the norm.

An Immensely Important River

According to a 2012 study, the Colorado River and its tributaries supply one in 10 Americans with at least some of their municipal water, which includes drinking water. The river also supports one-seventh of all U.S. crops.

As the water levels have decreased throughout the drought, the amount of water taken out of reservoirs on the Colorado River has not changed. More water is being taken out than is flowing back into the system.

We have seen exceptional droughts in central California lead to rationing, fines for watering lawns, and the closure of farms. Similar results could soon be seen along the Colorado. There are rolling impacts of situations like that. For example, in California, some communities have begun using groundwater, some of which is irreplaceable. That can drive up the cost of groceries and lead to even worse drought, among many other impacts.

Drought along the Colorado River is also creating energy problems. The lowered water levels at Lake Powell, for instance, mean that less power is being generated at the dam. The lessened ability to produce power makes the power more expensive for the government to deliver. According to the New York Times, in 2014, the agency managing the power at Lake Powell’s dam had to spend $62 million buying extra power to make up for shortfalls in creating power. The sale of power from that dam is used to pay for the operation of “other, smaller, dams and reservoirs used for irrigation in the West.” Every problem has a ripple effect and we’re just scratching the surface here.

Solutions

Colorado RiverThere are many problems to confront as the Colorado River dries up and not one of them has a simple solution. Some have called for the decommissioning of the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell, some have talked about diverting other water sources, some have suggested desalination plants along the ocean.

It gets confusing fast because the entire region depends on the Colorado River for energy, drinking water, water for farms, supporting a natural ecosystem, and much more. It’s difficult to untangle the ball of twine. Less water is coming in, but we continue to use the same amount of water for our daily needs. In addition to that overuse, the region’s drought is stopping water from being replenished. Problems like the loss of water at Lake Powell to evaporation and through fissures under the lake exasperate these issues.

We have focused a lot on Lake Powell, but it’s just an example of what’s happening up and down the river – and even across the world – as a result of climate change. Lake Mead, the reservoir at the Hoover Dam, hit the lowest water level in history earlier this year.

While the solution isn’t clear, it is clear that situations like this emphasize the need for students entering the STEM field with an eye on solving big problems in creative ways. We need people willing to do what they can to find solutions that improve lives while preserving a region that made STEM Job’s list of most amazing natural wonders in the United States.

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