The Detrimental Disappearance of the Colorado River

by | May 22, 2024

Nestled within the rugged terrain of the American Southwest and the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River weaves through a tapestry of breathtaking landscapes, providing an oasis for life amid the stark beauty of the desert. This 1,450-mile-long stream of water spans seven states and two nations—sustaining major cities, intricate ecosystems, and Native American tribes alike. However, tales of the timeless flow of water within the river may remain in the past as the effects of overconsumption and climate change progressively drain this critical artery, leaving behind deadly consequences for all that depend on it. 

Overconsumption

Given the vast extent of the river and its passage through numerous territories, a series of agreements from 1922 to 1964 were established to allocate the annual flow of 16.5 million acre-feet of the Colorado River among seven states and Mexico. The chart below depicts a summary of the compromises:

While many would expect the issue of overconsumption to stem from the rapid population growth and high water consumption of major cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, the reality is that the majority of the water from the Colorado River — more than one trillion gallons – is used to grow feed for livestock, namely alfalfa. 

In the Upper Basin, approximately 90% of all water utilized for agricultural purposes is consumed by alfalfa and other cattle-feed crops. This constitutes nearly half of the total water usage by the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and for environmental purposes combined. Consequently, the water consumption of alfalfa surpasses that of cities, commercial entities, and industries across the entire basin, accounting for a collective usage of approximately 3.5 million acre-feet, which equates to 18% of the river’s water.

Thus, excessive alfalfa and livestock feed cultivation is literally draining the Colorado River. While these crops offer drought resistance, high market demand, and efficient mechanized harvesting, they come at the cost of depleting a lifeline for over 40 million individuals and five million acres of cropland. Moreover, the fact that alfalfa primarily serves to feed the same cattle destined for dinner plates exacerbates the issue. By some estimates, producing a quarter-pound beef patty could require over 38 gallons of water, which encompasses the water needed to cultivate all the feed, such as alfalfa and hay, consumed by the cattle. Considering an American who eats three hamburgers a week, resulting in an annual national total of 50 million burgers, this calculation grows to astronomical proportions. In contrast, obtaining the equivalent amount of protein from tofu typically necessitates approximately five gallons of water. 

The figure to the left also effectively breaks down the consumption of the Colorado River. As evident, crops intended for direct human consumption, such as vegetables, utilize less than a quarter of the water consumed by livestock feed. Similarly, residential water consumption, including activities like lawn irrigation and showering, accounts for only a fifth of the water used by livestock feed. 

 

Climate change

From 2000 to 2021, the impact of climate change resulted in the depletion of approximately 10 trillion gallons of water in the Colorado River Basin, roughly equivalent to the total storage capacity of Lake Mead, one of the two major reservoirs of the river. Since 1880, there has been a warming trend of 1.5°C (2.7 F), aligning with the onset of the fossil fuel era. With every 1°C (1.8 F) increase in temperature in the Upper Basin, the basin experiences a loss of 4% to 10% of its water supply. This warming trend not only leads to increased water evaporation but also affects vegetation, consequently impacting snowpack runoff into the basin’s rivers by 10.3%. Areas that were historically covered in snow during winter are now experiencing water loss at a rate twice as fast as regions that were typically snow-free.

However, this evaporation can’t be attributed to a temporary cause such as a dry spell; instead, all evidence suggests that the rapid water loss is an indicator of long-term aridification — a phenomenon characterized by a gradual and sustained drying of an area over decades to centuries. Therefore, it’s improbable that precipitation and water levels will return to normal in this region anytime soon. 

Taking Action

At the end of the day, the draining of the Colorado River boils down to one question: what can we do to return this lifeline to its former glory? While common water-saving strategies such as having fewer lawns, avoiding long showers, and being conscious of our water usage will have an impact, changing dietary habits will allow for the most visible, efficient results. Adopting a vegan diet would mitigate overconsumption by eliminating the need for cattle and, consequently, the cultivation of water-intensive crops like alfalfa. Additionally, reducing methane emissions associated with cattle would curb climate change—a dual approach to tackling the river’s main challenges.

Click on the link below to take HAP’s Lean and Green Pledge and stop the disappearance of the Colorado River:

https://humaneactionpittsburgh.org/campaigns/compassionate-living/lean-and-green-day-pledge/ 

AUTHORS

Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University.

Abhi Nadendla is a blogger at HAP and has been volunteering at the organization since late 2022. She is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and loves spending her free time helping out at animal shelters.

Hannah Lewis is a grant writer and blogger from Pittsburgh’s North Side who has been with HAP since 2020. In addition to writing and advocating for animals, she enjoys hiking, cooking plant-based meals, bouldering at her local climbing gym, and curling up with a good book and her long-haired cat, Freyja.

Kelly Frantz has recently joined the HAP family as a blog writer. She is passionate about animal protection and is excited to educate the community about animal welfare.