Q&A: Colorado River crisis brings ‘very dry’ reality to US West
Al Jazeera speaks to UN expert Lis Mullin Bernhardt about need to adapt to historic drought’s impact on key US waterway.
Sometimes referred to as the “American Nile”, the Colorado River is the lifeblood of the western United States, supplying drinking water to tens of millions of people across the region and in Mexico.
But the 2,330km (1,450-mile) waterway, which stretches from its Colorado headwaters to the Gulf of California, is in crisis. Years of intense drought worsened by climate change, coupled with growing populations and intensive water use for agriculture, have led to historically low river levels.
In August 2021, Washington declared the first-ever water shortage in the Colorado River basin, and discussions are ongoing among the many stakeholders – cities, states, farmers and Indigenous communities – on how to dramatically cut water use.
Researchers have warned that without considerable reductions across the seven states that make up the Colorado River’s upper and lower basins, the two largest US reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which rely on the river – could get so low that water will cease flowing.
That would affect farmers as well as millions of people across Mexico and the seven US basin states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, the latter of which holds rights to the largest share of the Colorado’s water.
Al Jazeera speaks to Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a freshwater expert with the United Nations Environment Programme, about the crisis on the Colorado River, water shortages globally and what can be done.
Al Jazeera: What is the current status of the Colorado River and how did it get to this point?
Lis Mullin Bernhardt: Last August, there was an imminent danger of Lake Mead and Lake Powell reaching what we call “dead pool” status. What that means is that in those two dams, the water levels [would] become so low that they could no longer flow downstream.
That’s quite critical because Lake Mead is the largest artificial reservoir in the United States, [and] Lake Powell is the second largest. They provide water supplies for much of the American West and Mexico as well. Those reservoirs are incredibly important.
The funny thing about the American West is that it’s always been a bit water scarce. The area is very dry. It’s a desert, and population has exploded. So there’s no doubt that there’s huge pressure being put on the already scarce water supply by the population living there and also by some of the activities that are prevalent.
A lot of the American West, especially California, provides the fruit basket or the breadbasket for much of the country. The irrigation used for agriculture puts enormous strain on the water resources that are there. There’s a combination of population growth [and] unsustainable agricultural practices, and all of that is compounded no doubt by the impacts of climate change.
Al Jazeera: What does it mean to be in a drought?
Bernhardt: When water levels or moisture levels are low over two consecutive quarters, over a six-month period, we can call it a drought.
What we’re seeing in the American West is, it’s [been] getting drier and drier over the past 20 years, so we’re way beyond drought. It’s an aridification. It’s a new, very dry normal that we have to get used to – and not expect to end any time soon.
Al Jazeera: How do you get used to something like this, on the prospect of having to cut down on water usage?
Bernhardt: It’s really hard to change our habits, but I think we are seeing [people and places adapt], from moving from green lawns to a desert lawn, for example, or a rock lawn, or retrofitting houses to recycle your rainwater. For a long time, there’s been technologies like low-flushing toilets or water-saving showerheads. A lot of those things can be implemented with very little change to your daily lifestyle or habits.
Other things I think are bigger. Agriculture and the food we grow uses [as much as] 90 percent of the water we pump out of the ground. One very easy thing to implement is what we call drip irrigation, which just uses as much water in the plot that is needed for that specific crop, and that already saves a lot of water, and you can still grow the things that you want to grow. Another method is safely using wastewater for agriculture.
And I think maybe more importantly is consumers understanding and putting demand on the producers of food for food and drinks that are less water-intensive. We’re seeing that certain crops shouldn’t be grown in water-stressed areas, even if they’re a major cash crop. I think that farming and those industries have a huge role to play.
Al Jazeera: What other factors are involved in how Colorado River water is used?
Bernhardt: The Colorado River is really interesting because it has very old, historical rights to the withdrawals of that river. Farmers in the area and Indigenous populations living there have long had water rights, a certain percentage of water they can withdraw.
Part of the problem is that when those laws were drawn up 100 years ago (PDF), the estimate that was made at that time of the amount of water in the Colorado River basin was way more than even the river had back then and definitely more than the river has right now. And the Native American tribes that lived there, they have never used the full amount of water that they had the right to use. If they did, the river would have been dry 30 years ago.
So the Indigenous populations are playing a huge role by not using as much water as they could and helping to kind of broker and protect the rights of the river itself. The river also has a right to have enough water to be healthy and sustain the life that depends on it, not just humans but the wildlife too.
Al Jazeera: Looking beyond the Colorado River and the US West, how many people globally are affected by similar water scarcity issues today? What communities are bearing the brunt of this problem?
Bernhardt: At the moment, we estimate that there are one billion people around the world that live in chronically water-scarce regions and that 2.3 billion people around the world are experiencing water scarcity for some months of the year. We estimate that number could go up to 3.5 billion people in the next 10 years.
Water scarcity is being experienced all over the world, and those who live directly on the land or from the land are the ones that are hardest hit. It’s often Indigenous populations, local communities in Africa, women and children who are gathering that water that get affected by the scarcity. So we’re seeing vulnerable people everywhere in the world are on the front lines of this problem.
But I also believe that they are at the forefront of the solutions as well. That’s why it’s really quite encouraging to see the increased involvement of Indigenous populations in the American West.
Al Jazeera: Where do things go from here, for both the future of the Colorado River and global efforts to address water scarcity?
Bernhardt: I think that we need to stop living from disaster to disaster. We need to live already now, no matter where you are, as if you’re in a water-stressed part of the world and adapt your habits accordingly.
Dealing with water scarcity or reducing our water demand is a form of adapting to climate change. It’s a form of acknowledging that climate change and these environmental impacts are here to stay and we need to change what we’re doing in order to thrive in these conditions. But it’s just as important to not drop the ball on mitigating climate change as well.
Water plays a really important role in mitigation as well. Our world’s wetlands – like swamps or peatlands or bogs – hold probably two to three times more carbon than our forests do all around the world. If you rewet an area that used to be a wetland or help connect the river to its natural floodplain, within weeks or months, you see life coming back to that wetland.
I’m extremely hopeful. It’s easy to get pulled down by the news. It’s really easy to fall into despair, but we can’t afford to let ourselves do that. I see change happening. I see a positive future that might look a bit different from how we’re living now, but it’s still a very worthwhile future. I’ve got no doubt we’ll find solutions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.