Colorado River levels continue to decline. What does this mean for the future?

colorado river issues
Posted at 12:12 PM, Sep 16, 2021

HITE, Utah — The Colorado River is the lifeline of the western U.S. and now it’s drying up. That’s just the beginning of the problems facing the river and those who rely on it.

Along the river, people are having a rough time with recreational sports.

“For both recreational and commercial trips that are operating here on cataract canyon, takeouts are everything," said one local professional.

Trekking down a steep ramp is the only option to get in and out of the Colorado River. It's a ramp that used to have the capability of allowing a car to back up into the water, but the river has completely changed.

River scientists say it’s the result of decades of droughts and the creation of the reservoirs, only made worse by climate change.

“Right now, as Lake Powell continues to drop lower and, ya know, our forecasts are showing future drought years, we’re worried," said the same professional.

The river runs through seven states and Mexico. More than 40 million people rely on its resources.

“So, we have a river that 40 million people are dependent on for agriculture, municipal water use, and to some extent hydroelectricity," said Jack Schmidt, a river scientist.

Predictions show for every degree Celsius that it warms up, the Colorado River will lose 20% of its flow.

“Current projections say that we may be 2 degrees Celsius warming, that could be 40% of the river. If somebody cut 40% of your paycheck, you’d have to make some big changes," said Mike DeHoff, the principal investigator of the Returning Rapids Project.

Hite, Utah, is basically in the middle of nowhere. It was once home to the upper end of Lake Powell. One of the country's two main reservoirs.

“So, the declining levels of lake mead and Lake Powell which together are at about 30% full, is an enormous crisis in water supply management," Schmidt said.

Schmidt has been doing research here for decades but he’s never seen the river this low. He likens it to a budget problem.

“And so it’s like we had a really big checking account we had lots of money, we had some great awesome years, we were flush, we got used to spending it, we’ve been spending it at that level, but then, our income, we lost a job or lost a contract and the income has gone down and we’re still spending like we have the old income and so our checking account balance is going down and the problem is when the reservoir are at 30% full. Now, there is no buffer," Schmidt said.

No buffer means few options.

“Reducing consumptive use to match inflow is the single thing we have no choice but to do right now, to deal with this," Schmidt said.

It’s what he says needs to happen to supply those who rely on the Colorado, however, it’s not as simple as that.

“The level of change is so drastic that you just can’t help but shake your head and think that we didn’t get it right," DeHoff said.

DeHoff knows this land better than most, but he also views the problem at hand in a different way.

“We’re watching a river recover itself, like nowhere else on the planet," DeHoff said.

His project focuses on documenting the recovery of the river resources once inundated by a full Lake Powell.

“We then started going into all these river-running archives to find pictures of what the rapids looked, like before Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, and our question was, 'When is the next rapid coming back? Where is it going to be? Is it going to be the same place it was? Is it going to look the same as before the dam?'" DeHoff said.

The lower levels of water have allowed them to discover resources beneath.

“There’s habitat for endangered species on the Colorado that are found nowhere else on the world. The recreational resources of rapids. But there’s also cultural resources like as part of our returning rapids project. We have found cultural sites that were underwater and were water the mud that are coming back out," DeHoff said.

“Those guys are making it appropriately much harder to make it just casually say, 'Well, if we have more water this year, let’s put it in Lake Powell.' What they are doing is causing pause, because putting more water in Lake Powell means drowning all these things that have popped out," Schmidt said.

DeHoff will argue maybe refilling Lake Powell isn’t the answer. He says there’s a better way to store water while holding onto the river's resources.

“Lake Powell is going away and the Colorado River is taking back its corridor," DeHoff said.