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Demands on Colorado again make it nation’s most-endangered river
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Demands on Colorado again make it nation’s most-endangered river

  • The Colorado River watershed spans several Western states, but recent studies have indicated that demands from growing populations could outstrip the river’s supply, putting the river at risk.
    Bureau of Reclamation/Dep't of the InteriorThe Colorado River watershed spans several Western states, but recent studies have indicated that demands from growing populations could outstrip the river’s supply, putting the river at risk.
  • Most famous for its course through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River watershed sprawls over parts of seven states and into Mexico.
    Bureau of Reclamation/Dep't of the InteriorMost famous for its course through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River watershed sprawls over parts of seven states and into Mexico.

A new ranking lists the Colorado River as the most-endangered river in the country, as increased demands on its water supply have put the river “at a breaking point.”

The annual ranking by American Rivers lists the 10 rivers most threatened by pollution, development and demands for water that could cause the rivers to run dry.

That last threat was behind the No. 1 listing for the Colorado River, where studies that show demand for water from a growing population will eventually surpass the basin’s supply. It is the third time the Colorado River has topped the list, and the seventh time it has been included, since the annual report first appeared in 1984.

“The basin is really kind of at a breaking point,” said Amy Kober, an American Rivers spokeswoman. “This year, we need to get everyone together and put the basin on a path to better water sustainability.”

Arizona water officials conceded that the river is under stress and said the state is working toward more alternative methods of water management, including desalination and recycling water.

For now, however, the state has an “aggressive” water conservation system to prepare for the possibility of future shortages, said Thomas Buschatzke, assistant director for the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“We knew this was an issue with the Colorado River,” Buschatzke said. “We’ve been working on a solution for a couple decades.”

The Colorado River Basin provides water to nearly 40 million municipal residents, irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of land and sustains at least 22 tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas and 11 national parks, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

A report done by the agency with data from the seven basin states, including Arizona, predicted that annual demand for Colorado River water by 2060 would be 3.2 million acre feet more than the river is able to sustainably provide. Climate change could also reduce the river’s flow from 10 to 15 percent, said the report, which was released in December.

“The Colorado has been facing chronic water problems for years,” Kober said. “We need Congress to step up and fund some critical conservation and efficiency programs to conserve water and improve sustainability.”

Buschatzke said Arizona has about 9 million acre feet of water stored in case of extreme drought.

“It doesn’t keep water in the river, but it perhaps delays the day in which you might need to go to the river to get more water,” he said.

He noted that the state has strict regulations on development. He said a developer has to show that there is enough water for 100 years of use before a single new home can be built. And the state does still have enough water for development, Buschatzke said.

“On the efficiency side, I think we’ve done a good job,” he said.

Protect the Flows coordinator Molly Mugglestone, whose organization represents more than 800 businesses in the Colorado basin, said communities do a good job of conserving Colorado River, but that efficient use needs to be the top priority.

“People are willing and wanting to better use their water,” Mugglestone said. “We think that needs to be done more.”

The way the water is currently managed is old-fashioned and has not changed much since the 19th century, she said. The method that uses dams and pipes water out of the river is not progressive enough to address the imbalances reported by the Bureau of Reclamation, she said.

“There’s just not going to be enough water,” Mugglestone said. “We rely on this for our livelihoods in the West.”

River rankings

American Rivers ranking of rivers most endangered from unsustainable demand, pollution and other threats. The top rivers, their locations and threats:

1. Colorado River: Demand on river water exceeds supply; watershed includes parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

2. Flint River: At risk of running dry; Georgia.

3. San Saba River: Irrigation pumping is draining the river; Texas.

4. Little Plover River: Groundwater withdrawals threaten river supply; Wisconsin.

5. Catawba River: Coal ash storage threatens water quality; North and South Carolina.

6. Boundary Waters: Proposed copper-nickel mining operation could threaten water quality; Minnesota.

7. Black Warrior River: Proposed coal mining operation could harm drinking water; Alabama.

8. Rough & Ready, Baldface creeks: Proposed nickel mine could threaten water quality; Oregon.

9. Kootenai River: Current and proposed open-pit coal mines threaten waters; Montana, Idaho, and British Columbia.

10. Niobrara River: Dams trap sediment, threatening Wild and Scenic River; Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming.

(Special mention) Merced River: Dam proposal would flood what is currently a Wild and Scenic River; California.

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