Years of Abuse and Overuse Make the Colorado River the Most Endangered River of 2013

The Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Park.

The Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Park. National Park Service photo.

This year’s Most Endangered Rivers report from American Rivers makes one thing clear: It is not sustainable for a single river to support 36 million people.

That’s the situation today for the Colorado River. Though millions use its water, it is already so over-tapped that it now dries up to a trickle before reaching the sea. Climate change and population growth have the potential to make the situation worse. The Bureau of Reclamation’s own report (Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, December 2012) stresses that there is not enough water to meet current demands across the basin, let alone support future demand increases. Scientists predict climate change will reduce the Colorado River’s flow by 10 to 30 percent by 2050. We can’t stay on the path we’re on now if we want this iconic river and its surrounding parks and communities to remain healthy.

That’s why, now more than ever, it’s time to talk about how best to conserve the river while ensuring our protected lands remain unimpaired for future generations.

Images of this iconic river are entwined with the majestic national parks it travels through, from the meadows and rich valleys of Rocky Mountain to the dramatic vistas of the Grand Canyon. A Park Service brochure of the region captures so much of it so well for me:

The national parks of the Colorado River basin set aside the best of the river corridor’s most scenic, natural, and cultural wonders to serve the country’s heart and spirit … Dinosaur National Monument’s cathedral-like canyons where the Green and Yampa Rivers meet … Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s steep, narrow gash through some of the hardest rock on Earth … Curecanti National Recreation Area’s vast blue shimmer in the Colorado high country … Canyonlands National Park’s meandering gulches in the heart of Utah’s red rock country … the stark meeting of big water and big desert in Glen Canyon and Lake Mead National Recreation Area … more than 2,000 sandstone arches at Arches National Park … and the breathtaking, mile-deep descent into geologic time that is Grand Canyon National Park.

These parks and recreation areas depend on the river for their health and vitality, and in turn create economic boons for surrounding communities throughout the basin. Yet, it is a nearly impossible challenge for the National Park Service to fulfill its mandate to conserve resources in these parks due to ongoing water management issues. The various federal agencies managing the river have aimed to provide a reliable supply of water to this rapidly growing region of the country but haven’t significantly considered how to incorporate the protection of parklands. Americans recognize the special character of these wild places and protect them for present and future generations. It is now my turn, and yours, to speak up on behalf of national parks to ensure these southwestern jewels remain for our children and theirs.

In their report, American Rivers points to the need for Congress to fund programs that will encourage better water management of the Colorado River for the 21st century. NPCA couldn’t agree more. All concerned agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Park Service must be involved in the development of a long-term, basin-wide framework to proactively manage water flows to address the needs of surrounding cities, agriculture, hydropower, recreation, and environmental resources. Full participation with an open, transparent process and adequate funding are both crucial to the future of this great American waterway.

NPCA’s Colorado River program is working to incorporate healthy river flows and healthy national parklands into the land- and water-management discussions more fully. These protected natural areas are part of larger landscapes and ecosystems that require collaboration among disparate stakeholders to protect. We work with federal, state, and local agencies to promote proactive measures for long-term restoration and protection of these public lands and waters. We believe that by highlighting the profound impact river management and continued diversion has on our national parks—places that are both beloved for their beauty and valued for their economic leverage—we can engage a diverse network of voices that will advocate to save the Colorado River.

For more information, see our recent press statement on American Rivers’ Most Endangered River and learn more about NPCA’s Colorado River program. You can take action for the Colorado River on the American Rivers website, and learn more by reading the Most Endangered Rivers report and watching the video below.

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About the Author

Meghan Trubee is former Colorado River senior campaign manager at NPCA.