Water Troubles

The Colorado River Is In Trouble. 

The great river of the American West has headwaters in the marshes created by the snow-melts at La Poudre Pass (Colorado).  Soon afterwards, the water diversion projects begin. These water fields and provide life to communities.   Before leaving the Coyote Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park (also Colorado), about 30% of the water is already taken for irrigation. More tributaries converge into the river as the waters move southward, many of which are fed by endangered glacial fields. Community after community uses the water, diverts the water. Now, the lagoons that once dotted the landscape of Southern Arizona and California are no longer nourished by the river.

An estimated 40 million people depend upon the Colorado for their sustenance. Like a watery shell game, more water is now promised in water rights than the river can provide. Moreover, drought severity in the southwest and central plains is expected to worsen in the coming decades, exceeding the dry conditions of the Medieval Warm Period. These demands increase the pressures already strapped rivers and aquifers. In North America, this medieval climate anomaly contributed to the fall of numerous civilizations, including the Anasazi and Cahokia.

The Mississippi, America’s other great river, is now drier than during the Dust Bowl of the early 20th century.  The Great Plains has experienced multiple droughts in the 20th and 21st centuries. The great drought of 2012 ranked among the most damaging, and precipitation was down across the US.  It was down even more than during the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, with ¾ of the US experiencing abnormally dry conditions and $35 billion in losses directly tied to the drought. Some of this ties back to the continuing importance of the Mississippi in commerce and agricultural exports.

As of June 15, 2021, much of the American West and South West, from Washington State through Texas, was under “Exceptional” drought conditions (D4). Severe droughts are called D2.” (To see the University of Nebraska Lincoln map of the American Drought, click here). Thus, almost all of that region qualifies at least as abnormally dry.  The Midwest, the nation’s breadbasket, is hot and dry but only severely parched in the heavily populated area around Chicago.

Currently, the Mississippi is not, repeat NOT in danger of running dry any time soon. But over the coming decades and centuries, that could change, and with those changes, even greater environmental and economic destruction will occur.


The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC.

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