Archaic laws and short-sighted management threaten the irreplaceable Colorado.
The Colorado River is a wonder to behold, from its headwaters near Rocky Mountain National Park to its curving path across the Colorado Plateau and down to the Gulf of California, twisting and turning through some of the country’s most storied landscapes.
It is no exaggeration to call the Colorado one of our nation’s most important river systems. The main watercourse and its tributaries pass through seven U.S. states, carving out the central features of 11 national parks, including the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Its waters support rare and special lifeforms, from Canada lynx to Mexican spotted owls to desert bighorn sheep. It also provides drinking water to an astounding 36 million people and irrigation for up to 4.5 million acres of pasture and cropland.
You would think that a river this consequential to the lives and livelihoods of so many would merit the highest protections. Yet the Colorado River is consistently ranked as the most endangered river in the country. Of the of the original 36 native fish species that once inhabited the rivers of the Colorado basin, only 14 remain, and four are endangered—a signal that something is terribly wrong. This summer’s epic drought conditions have only worsened the outlook for the river and lowered its already strained water levels.
Why are we allowing something so precious to dwindle to the point of irreversible harm? The answer is complicated.
Part of the problem is that there is not enough water to satisfy everything people want from the river and everything the river needs at the same time. But the problem isn’t just supply and demand. Also to blame is the legal framework that divides the Colorado up and has encouraged its overuse for more than a century.
The laws that govern water rights in this region of the country are not designed to balance competing needs in a holistic way. Instead, they treat every gallon of water in the river the same as a gallon of water in a holding tank: useful only insofar as how it is being consumed by people. They do not adequately consider the long-term damage to landscapes and species when this water is removed. As a result, the Colorado is among the most highly developed rivers in the world, with an astonishing network of dams, canals, pumps, and pipelines that divert water to meet human needs. The people who get to use the most of the Colorado’s resources are those who began diverting water from the river earliest, through a “first come, first served” system that the law has upheld for decades despite increasing environmental concerns.
Some of the losers in this game include the state of Colorado itself, which, in spite of housing the headwaters of the river, was one of the last entities to claim rights to take its water. Legally, the state can use 3.86 million acre feet of water per year—but only after it sends enough water downstream to meet the needs of California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Some of Colorado’s portion of the river is piped across the Continental Divide for use in Denver and other cities in the growing Front Range.
The current framework for dividing Colorado River water leaves national parks—and other protected places without supporting water rights—especially exposed.
One park at particular risk is Dinosaur National Monument. Named for an extensive fossil quarry on the Utah side of the park boundary, most of the park’s 210,000 acres lie in Colorado. The monument features exquisite canyons carved from rock dating as far back as 1.2 billion years, as well as the confluence where the Yampa and Green Rivers meet. Dinosaur has become almost as well known for its world-class boating as its Jurassic-era bones.
As the last free-flowing river in the Colorado basin, the Yampa River is significant not just for Dinosaur, but for all of the national parks in the Colorado system. Unbound by dams or pipelines, the Yampa brings critical nutrients and sediment downstream to plants and wildlife, and provides habitat to endangered fish, such as the Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub.
Dinosaur National Monument is celebrating its 100th anniversary this fall, but its water needs are vulnerable in a way that would have been unthinkable a century ago. There are ongoing proposals to divert and develop the Yampa, and debate about how water not already claimed in the river should be used. Without further protections, the river that flows into Dinosaur National Monument and plays such an important role throughout the basin for national parks, people, farms, fish, and ecosystems alike, could one day suffer the same outcome as the other imperiled tributaries in the Colorado basin. Any significant reduction in water flowing through the Yampa could be the nail in the coffin for the entire Colorado River system.
NPCA will be fighting for a flexible, balanced approach to sharing this water in a way that continues to support human needs while keeping more water in this vital river system that brings life to hundreds of miles of otherwise arid landscapes.
The state of Colorado is currently accepting public comments on its statewide water plan, which leaves the door open to divert more water from the river to urban centers. Colorado residents can weigh in on this plan and help refocus the attention on the region’s unique national parks and imperiled species by commenting on the state’s website.
This fall, officials at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area will be rethinking the future of one of the largest dams in the Colorado River system. For updates and opportunities to take action on this and other important park-related issues, sign up for NPCA’s action alerts.
About the author
Vanessa Mazal Former Colorado Senior Program Manager
Vanessa is the Colorado Senior Program Manager for the Southwest Regional Office and can often be found traipsing through the diverse and beautiful parks of this state.