Colorado River: ‘Time to stop studying and start doing’

The Colorado River Basin is running out of water, announced the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2012. This week, the agency followed up on its gloomy prediction with a new report outlining how to avoid drastic involuntary water cutbacks across the Colorado River Basin.

For most of the 21st century, the more than 35 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply have been living off of water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the country.

And once that water’s gone, it’s gone – unless people change their consumption habits.

Gathering strength for its long haul to the Sea of Cortez, the Colorado River rolls through the Kawuneeche Valley in western Rocky Mountain National Park.

The history

The 2012 Colorado River Basin study by the Bureau of Reclamation has become part of the modern canon for water planners. Projections of vast water shortages triggered water-planning efforts, including one in Colorado that’s now lurching toward its final stages. From Denver to Los Angeles, many people started realizing the taps were about to go dry.

And Ken Salazar, then serving as Secretary of the Interior, promised change.

“We will pursue practical, common sense solutions … like reducing demand through efficiency and conservation, and also increasing our supply through practical measures like reuse,” said Salazar, a Coloradan who has muddied many a pair of cowboy boots while tromping through streams and irrigation ditches.

Colorado River Basin map
More than 33 million people in seven states and Mexico rely on Colorado River water.


The new report

The bureau’s new report recommends efficient uses of water in homes and on farms: installing low-flow toilets and shower heads, cutting back on water-intensive landscaping and clamping down on leaks in irrigation systems. It also spells out the importance of leaving some water in rivers; after all, fish need a place to swim, anglers need a place to catch fish, water fowl need a place to eat, and river runners can’t exactly lead rafting expeditions without rapids to ride.

The report, which mirrors language in the first draft of the Colorado water plan, elicited praise from environmentalists.

“Certainly not your daddy’s Bureau of Reclamation. Makes me happy!” tweeted Drew Beckwith, of Western Resource Advocates, referring to the federal agency’s shift away from its historic legacy of dam-building that shaped the modern West.

Along with providing water for drinking and farms, the Colorado River has long been a key transportation corridor through the Rocky Mountains. Train tracks still in use today near State Bridge, in Eagle County, north of Wolcott, were part of the first transcontinental rail route.


“I think the report just crystallizes the point that we need to stop studying and start doing. Water conservation and efficiency actions are proven to be faster, better, and cheaper than any sort of structural water supply alternative,” Beckwith said via email. “Given all what’s happening in the basin, we need to start funding and implementing the conservation solution(s) now,” he said.

Along with the gloom and doom projections of water shortages, the Bureau of Reclamation report also includes  glimmers of hope. Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles are all using less water per person than they did two decades ago.

On average, per capita water use has decreased by 11 to 38 percent since 1990 and by 10 to 26 percent since 2000 in major metropolitan areas, the report states, attributing at least part of that drop to better conservation efforts.

The report’s focus on conservation was reinforced by Colorado River experts with the Colorado River Research Group, academic researchers from throughout the Colorado River Basin, who timed the release of their own study to coincide with the Bureau of Reclamation-led effort.

“The Case for Conservation” urges water managers to embrace conservation “with the same passion, ingenuity, and brashness” that is typically reserved only for new water developments. The scholars argue that, even though conservation may not be seem cutting edge, it can yield huge water savings almost immediately.

“We have an array of examples from successful conservation efforts and a further recent example from California’s strong drought response that significant proactive steps are possible,” said said Matt Rice, director of Colorado Basin Programs for American Rivers, explaining that the report offers real solutions to protect the Colorado River.

“But it is time to stop talking and instead start funding and implementing these solutions,” he said.

BuRec graphic-2
A new report released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation includes 25 recommendations for saving water in cities and on farms, and for preserving economically important healthy river flows.


Photos by Bob Berwyn. 

Top photo: Thousands of rafters and kayakers use the Colorado River upstream of Glenwood Springs, a western Colorado town that relies heavily on tourism dollars related to river activities.

He writes about energy and the environment while wandering the Colorado Rockies. He's instagram crazy, a digital-era mountain sickness. | @bberwyn | Instagram


  1. as an owner and user of source water in Colorado for forty years, our ditch company has dealt with water theft and water grabbing developers for years…We, the Ditch Company, have been preparing for this eventuality for years, and are in fairly good shape…we will be short of water, but not as bad as predicted…Our little water company is a non profit with senior water rights pre dating the Forest Service, and BLM…It has been a constant battle to keep our rights where they belong…Now, it seems, this water commission has adopted some new rules that puts our water rights in danger…I will fight for my water…drilling and fracking threaten our watershed, while we have a coal mine, mining under our water system, and we all know how responsible some of these coal owners are…they have filed, illegally, for our water…the fight is ongoing…

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