Colorado River

In 1922, seven Western states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming and California — drew up an agreement on how to divide the waters of the Colorado River. But there was one big problem with the plan: They overestimated how much water the river could provide.

As a result, each state was promised more water than actually exists. This miscalculation — and the subsequent mismanagement of water resources in those states — has created a water crisis that now affects nearly 40 million Americans.


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For some people, too much salt is bad for health. Too much salt is also bad for growing most crops.

Salty soil is a common problem for farmers in the arid West and it's gotten worse because of the ongoing drought. Water is necessary to flush salts out; without it, salt builds up over time.

In New Mexico, one crop that's suffering is the state's beloved chile pepper.

The historic four-year drought in California has been grabbing the headlines lately, but there's a much bigger problem facing the West: the now 14-year drought gripping the Colorado River basin.

One of the most stunning places to see its impact is at the nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. At about 40 percent of capacity, it's the lowest it's been since it was built in the 1930s.

California is parched. Wells are running dry. Vegetable fields have been left fallow and lawns are dying. There must be some villain behind all this, right?

Of course there is. In fact, have your pick. As a public service, The Salt is bringing you several of the leading candidates. They have been nominated by widely respected national publications and interest groups.

There's just one problem: Not all of these shady characters live up to their nefarious job description. Let us explain.

1. Almonds


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Joshua M via Flickr (CC-BY)

With monsoon season passing us, it might be easy to forget that Colorado and the entire Colorado River are in the middle of a long drought.  14 years long. 

NOTE: In the on-air version of this story we incorrectly stated the date of a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announcement about Colorado River cut-backs to lower basin states. That announcement happened in 2013, not this year. (8/26/14)

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced this month water releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead will increase next year, after historically low releases in 2014. Lake Mead has reached record low levels this summer. The Colorado River supplies these large reservoirs. At a water conference in Snowmass Village last week, drought and the Colorado River were discussed. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

Lake Mead
U.S. Geological Survey

The federal government and municipal water providers in four Western states have reached an agreement to fund Colorado River conservation projects. 

The $11 million deal was announced Thursday. Municipal water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado and the Bureau of Reclamation have agreed to fund projects to conserve Colorado River water.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lockhead said Denver is one of the four municipalities participating in the program.

Lockhead said half of Denver’s water supply comes from the Colorado River. 

The drought-stricken Colorado River Basin is drying up faster than was thought, according to a recent study. 

NASA and the University of California, Irvine used satellite data gathered over a nine year period to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin that has been experiencing severe drought since 2000.    

The scientists looked at monthly measurements between December 2004 and November 2013. They found the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet of freshwater, that's nearly double the volume of Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, during that period. The study said about 41 million acre feet of that lost water was groundwater.  

The basin provides water to millions of people in seven Western states: Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. It also supplies water to roughly four million acres of farmland. 

For a few weeks this spring, the Colorado River flowed all the way to the sea for the first time in a half a century. And during that window of opportunity, writer Rowan Jacobsen took the paddleboarding trip of a lifetime.

The river starts in the Rocky Mountains, and for more than 1,400 miles, it wends its way south. Along the way it's dammed and diverted dozens of times, to cities and fields all over the American West. Tens of millions of people depend on the river as a water source.

This winter’s mega snowpack in the mountains is melting and filling reservoirs and rivers around the state. For whitewater rafting companies the big flows are good for thrills. But, some stretches are river are too full to float. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

Longtime rafting guide Bob Morse is giving his safety spiel to a small group preparing to board a bright yellow raft. For some, it’s their first time rafting.

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The consensus on iSeeChange last week was…it’s hot! Too hot for this time of year. Too hot and too dry. If climate change experts are right, this will only get worse. KVNF’s Marty Durlin spoke to Dave Kanzer, senior water resources engineer for the Colorado River Conservation District, about the effects of a hotter, dryer world.


The biggest part of Dave Kanzer’s job is to help us conserve water – a job that only gets bigger as the drying effects of climate change are felt across the Colorado River basin.


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