- Millions of people, businesses, and animals rely on the Colorado River for water, but this valuable resource is at risk as demand exceeds the supply
- Arizona exports water to other states and countries in the form of grown agricultural products, despite 20 years of drought
- Personal water-conserving lifestyle choices and action from cities and local governments can help mitigate the costs of excess water-use and conserves water
Do you depend on the Colorado River?
The Colorado River is the 6th largest river in the United States, and is often considered “the lifeblood of the Southwest”. This vast river is 1,450 miles long with an expansive 260,000 square mile watershed that serves 7 U.S. states, including Arizona, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and even northern cities of Mexico. In 1922, the states that are reliant on the river basin entered the Colorado River Compact, which portioned the 15 million acre-feet* of water between each region. Today, the expanse of the Colorado Basin supplies water for:
- Nearly 40 million municipal residents
- Irrigation for 5.5 million acres of agriculture
- 22 Native American tribes
- 7 National Wildlife refuges
- 5 National Recreation Areas
- 11 National Parks
Water isn’t the only resource the Colorado River supplies, however. Dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts placed throughout the River generate more than 4,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power for the neighboring states. This can power approximately 1,680,000 homes surrounding the basin, as one megawatt will produce enough electricity to power 400 to 900 homes for an entire year in comparison to conventional generators like coal plants (Bellemare, 2012). In addition, the aesthetic, recreational, and ecological resources provided by the Colorado River are irreplaceable. With dramatic canyons like Horseshoe Bend, whitewater rapids, and critical habitat for 30 endemic fish species and millions of migrating birds, the River helps make the Southwestern U.S. known for its abundance of natural wonders. It’s no question that millions of people, businesses, and animals are reliant on the Colorado River, but is there a chance that we may lose this resource entirely?
*1 acre-foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons
Is Arizona at risk of drying up?
To put it bluntly; the demand for water from the Colorado River exceeds the supply. Arizona in particular gets 40% of its water supply directly from the River, with the other 60% coming from groundwater (which takes decades to replenish) or reclaimed greywater. For the past 20 years, however, the water level in the Colorado River has been declining at an alarming rate due to drought and a lack of water conservation policies. Because of this issue, the U.S Secretary of the Interior declared the first-ever cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado River in 2022. This shortage reduction falls largely on central Arizona’s agricultural users (which will face a 65% reduction). However, municipal residents should expect higher costs of wholesale water delivered through the Central Arizona Project.
So, why is agriculture the only sector with water reductions? To put it in perspective, 500,000 acre-feet* of water from the Colorado River was used for Arizona agriculture in 2019, which is over 20% of our total available water supply. That may seem like a reasonable percentage, I mean, we need food to survive, right? Isn’t it worth it to use our water for agriculture? What makes this number a lot more concerning is the fact that most of the water used for Arizona agriculture does not end up benefiting Arizona residents or the environment. Yuma, Arizona is dubbed the “Winter Salad Bowl” due to the consistently warm climate, and it produces approximately 90% of the nation’s leafy vegetables from November through May. We also export a large portion of desert water to countries like Saudi Arabia and China (in the form of grown agricultural products) who buy up available land to compensate for their own lack of freshwater. Arizona land is relatively cheap and well-connected to airports, and to add to our list of issues, water-use regulations are almost non-existent. According to water policy expert Robert Glennon, Western U.S. farmers have used more than a hundred billion gallons of water to grow alfalfa that was then shipped to China. Many environmentalists and Arizona citizens are beginning to ask a very important question: Why are we exporting desert water when our water supplies are shrinking? Shouldn’t we be saving it?
How cities are taking action
Inevitably, the most efficient way to save water is to start implementing sustainable agriculture strategies, and not just in Arizona. The agriculture industry consumes more than 70% of allocated water from the Colorado River, with agricultural farms extending across 5.7 million acres of the arid land surrounding the River. In order to reduce the severity of agricultural water-use from the Colorado River, sustainable practices such as voluntary irrigation efficiency, regulated irrigation, rotational fallowing, crop shifting, and innovative irrigation technologies are currently being implemented by American farmers. In addition, water banking is a market-based approach that allows farmers to bank their unused water voluntarily.
Wastewater and greywater are also treated and reused for irrigation, industrial processing and cooling, dust control, artificial lakes, and replenishing groundwater supply. Reclaiming water reduces the decline of the groundwater tables and provides a continuous and dependable supplemental source of water for Arizona. The 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant is a great example of this alternative, as the plant treats approximately 140 million gallons of wastewater per day that is then used for irrigation, riparian habitats, and to recharge groundwater aquifers.
Individuals making a splash in water conservation
By 2060, we should expect a 3.8 million acre-foot* deficit in the River supply if we do not change our water conservation habits. For reference, one acre-foot is about how much 3 American families will use in a year, not to mention all the water that is needed for agricultural, recreational, and industrial use. While major reform in agriculture needs to be addressed, individual actions can influence success for water conservation. Water – Use It Wisely conservation campaign provided a list of 100 ways to conserve water, which include taking shorter showers, upgrading appliances like toilets and dishwashers with water-saving models, and encouraging water conservation education in school systems.
Many cities in Arizona also encourage xeriscaping, or desert landscaping, which promotes water conservation in landscaped areas. Mesa, Arizona created a Grass-to-Xeriscape program to reduce landscape water-use by half or more by replacing grass lawns with desert landscaping and drought-tolerant Sonoran Desert plants. According to their program, the City of Mesa provides a $500 incentive when 500 square feet or more of grass is replaced with desert landscaping. Low-water-use trees are also promoted with additional incentives, as they support shade and cooling effects in cities. Even without the incentives, xeriscaping promotes improvements in soil quality, reduced maintenance, lower water bills, reduced water waste (as over 50% of residential water usage goes towards landscaping), and habitat support for desert wildlife. Whether you live in Mesa or any other desert city, xeriscaping is something you should consider!
Another great way to conserve water use is to be conscious of our habits as consumers. The food we choose to eat and the clothes we wear, for example, are great places to start being more mindful. Think of something as simple as buying a cup of coffee; consider where the ingredients came from and how much water was used to make it. It takes 53 gallons of water to make every latte when you consider growing and harvesting sugar cane and coffee beans, the water it takes to produce the plastic cup and lid, as well as the water used on dairy farms to produce milk. Add that all up, and that tiny cup of coffee seems to hold a lot more weight! Next time you eat something, try to think about where your food has come from and how much water it took to make it. You’d be surprised how much of your personal water-use comes from food alone.
The clothes we buy also have an effect on water conservation. The fashion industry is the second-largest water-intensive business in the world and contributes to 20% of global industrial water pollution from treatment and dyeing processes. Some personal lifestyle changes you can make to be more conscious of your water-use are to buy second-hand clothing, air-dry your clothes, donate clothing items you no longer use instead of throwing them away, and avoid fast fashion brands. It takes 2,700 liters of water (which is how much you will drink in three years!) to make one t-shirt, so the best thing you can do as a consumer is to make clothes last.
The future of water in your hands
Overall, water conservation has a lot of moving parts. It is particularly important to pay attention to our personal water-use in dry environments like Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, and Nevada where we rely on this natural resource not only to survive, but for so many other things that we often take for granted such as green lawns, new clothes, and even a turkey sandwich. The Colorado River is incredibly important for industrial, recreational, municipal, and ecological use in the Southwest, so let’s all do our part in securing this natural resource! All life needs water to live, and it can seem daunting to look at this issue from an individual standpoint, but know that if we all work together, we can start making a difference. Being aware of where your water comes from is the first step, but we hope to encourage you to implement choices into your life that will ensure water security for generations to come.
American Rivers Executive Summary. 2014. https://westernresourceadvocates.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2015/07/CO_River_Solutions_ES.pdf.
Kyl Center for Water Policy Storymap. “Arizona’s Most Precious Resource”. https://asu.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=a44299ef542a479d8a63b72c348dd1ba.
Morrison Institute, ASU. What does the Colorado River shortage mean? https://morrisoninstitute.asu.edu/sites/default/files/colorado_river_blogs.pdf.
Western Resource Advocates. Protecting the Colorado River. https://westernresourceadvocates.org/healthy-rivers-and-lakes/protecting-colorado-river/.
AMWUA One For Water. Our Waste at Work. 2019. https://www.amwua.org/blog/our-waste-at-work.