Heard on Morning Edition
The Colorado River is tapped out.
Another dry year has left the watershed that supplies 40 million people in the Southwest parched. A prolonged 21-year warming and drying trend is pushing the nation’s two largest reservoirs to record lows. For the first time, a shortage will be declared by the federal government.
The 1,450-mile long waterway acts as a drinking water supply, a hydroelectric power generator, and an irrigator of desert crop fields across seven western states and two in Mexico. Scientists are increasingly certain that the only way forward is to rein in demands on the river’s water to match its decline.
With the river’s infrastructure able to cushion against some of the immediate effects, what manifests is a slow-moving crisis. Water managers, farmers, and city leaders clearly see the coming challenges but haven’t yet been forced to drastically change their uses.
Extremely dry conditions like the region is experiencing in 2021 make clear that the Colorado River is currently unable to meet all the demands communities in the Western U.S. have placed on it, and it’s up to its biggest users to decide who has to rely on it less.
A dry year in the headwaters
The Colorado River starts on Colorado’s Western Slope, where father and son Wayne and Brackett Pollard run cattle. Up on a sagebrush-covered hillside, under a shade tree, the two men look down into the river’s valley near the town of Rifle. Their cattle graze on both sides, including on hay fields irrigated by the river’s water.
“Typically, this would be high water and it hasn’t really come up at all,” Brackett Pollard said in mid-June. Being a farmer or rancher in the West comes with a list of superlatives this year. He listed them off: driest, hottest, lowest, worst.
“Last year was considerably dry, maybe the driest we’d seen. And now we’re looking even drier,” Brackett said.
“Our springs are starting to dry up, up on the mountain and everywhere,” Wayne added.
The river’s entirety, from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to the U.S.-Mexico border, experienced its driest 12-month period on record from May 2020 to April 2021. Record low levels of soil moisture diminished this past spring’s runoff, locking in water supply shortfalls until at least next winter when all hopes will be for a heavy blanket of snow.
Nearly all of the Upper Colorado River basin is experiencing severe drought or worse. Fishing and recreation closures on some tributaries, like the Dolores, Animas and Yampa Rivers, have started rolling out early as water supplies dwindle.
This dry spell comes with the usual lack of rain and snow, and the relentless sun, Brackett said. But this summer a hot wind has also arrived, functioning like a giant hair dryer pointed right at his pastures.
“It’s just like sucking the moisture out even more so,” Brackett said.
The availability of water limits food for cattle. The Pollards grow hay to supplement their livestock, and rely on grazing permits on public land. This summer, with viable ground more limited due to drought, they decided to put cattle on irrigated land that would normally be used to grow hay for later in the season. That’s a loss in income they’ll have to absorb.
The choice for many ranchers is stark: find more expensive feed or sell the herd.
“I would rather fight it down market any day as I would a drought,” Wayne said. “I don’t like fighting drought. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Livestock sale barns across the West are busy, as ranchers look to offload hungry cattle they’re unable to feed without incurring even steeper costs. The Pollards plan to sell about half of their cows by this fall, and suspect they won’t be the only ones doing so.
“You’re looking at a serious loss of equity in rural America, in the rural West,” Brackett said.
“I think it takes a mental toll,” he added. “There have certainly been times where you just can’t believe how hot and how dry it is. And then on top of that it hasn’t rained in a month. And then you start to pile the wind on and you feel like you can’t get a break.”
Lake Powell to hit historic low
About 250 miles downstream from the Pollards’ property, the Colorado River becomes a massive reservoir, Lake Powell.
The reservoir fills Glen Canyon, a maze of red rock on the Colorado Plateau. A lack of snowpack and warming temperatures in the Rocky Mountains upstream and relentless demands from agriculture and cities downstream are pushing the reservoir toward its lowest point since it was built in the 1960s.
Sheri Facinelli and her husband Randy Redford vacation at the recreation hot spot each year. A stark white bathtub ring marking the reservoir’s previous level looms high above the boats that rip across its surface.
The record low level means Glen Canyon Dam is already generating less hydroelectric power, and it forces boaters to be more aware of their surroundings. Geologic features long kept underwater are emerging as it declines to a new historic low.
“Places where you’ve boated for 20 years and gone flying over, all of a sudden there’s big islands and rocks,” Facinelli said as she veered the boat into a narrow, winding side canyon.
“Plus as the canyons get narrower, then you’ve got to worry about traffic more. It’s more nerve wracking,” she said.