The Colorado River basin has been hit with water shortages in recent years, in part due to agriculture. Climate change and population growth have made the problem worse. Farmers began digging irrigation ditches in arid soil and planted crops like wheat and hay. Today, crops consume about 70 percent of the Colorado River’s water, while lawns use about 15 percent.
Modern river development has disrupted many of the natural species that once inhabited the river basin. The tamarisk shrub, which spreads quickly along the Colorado River because of its deep roots and high transpiration rate, has displaced native species. In the mid-20th century, large predators such as river otters were systematically eliminated to benefit ranching. Today, only a few species of river otters survive, and these animals are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
In addition to water shortages, other challenges face the Colorado River basin. In recent years, the region has suffered from compounded severe drought years, which has depleted the river’s supply. To address these challenges, Colorado and other states in the Basin are working together to develop solutions. Currently, Colorado is negotiating a post-2026 river operation agreement. These states are working within existing legal frameworks to address these challenges, while exploring new tools and strategies to prepare for future uncertainties.
The Colorado River is a large river system, with scores of major tributaries. It is a vital source of water for forty million people and four million acres of farmland in the southwestern United States and Mexico. The Colorado River basin also has hydroelectric plants that generate nearly 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. This makes it one of the most heavily regulated rivers in the United States.