The Little Colorado River meets the Colorado River known as The Confluence at the Grand Canyon. (Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.)
At the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon, where the Little Colorado and Colorado River meet, is where my family story begins; this place is called “the confluence.” My Shima’ (mom) told me the brown and red canyon is where the holy people live. The merging of the light blue little Colorado and the blue green Colorado river is where our creator Diyin’ (God) began. When we stand on the edge, with the brown, blue, and green, the sun, and the sky we pray with our corn pollen to where everything began. Shima’ told me, we started in the water as bugs. When we emerged out of the river and climbed up the canyon, we transformed into animals. When we arrived at the top of the canyon, we became what we are called today: Dine’ (Navajo people).
Now, we need to save the Colorado River from extinction. The results of climate change have decreased water levels and snowpack that stem from prolonged drought, and the over consumption of water has exacerbated the problem. The Colorado River serves 40 million people in the west, this includes seven states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. All seven states depend on the Colorado River for public water supply, irrigation, aquaculture, hydroelectricity, and thermoelectric power generation. Two of the largest reservoirs in the United States, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are fed by the Colorado and generate hydropower through the (Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams) to major cities. These reservoirs are drying up; the levels are at risk of being too low to produce power. Lake Powell’s water level is at approximately 3, 520 ft (April 23’ projections), and the minimum pool to keep the turbines at the dam running, is 3, 490 ft. This means that, 30-ft of water hangs in the balance of 40 million people that survive on the water and electricity that it produces. Lake Mead, our largest reservoir in the United States, is also threatened. Lake Mead is at 1,045 ft (April 23’ projections by…) and below 1,023 ft, it is classified as a shortage—only a 22-feet difference. As the precipitation decreases in the western United States, with the lack of snow and an increase of global temperatures, the future of the reservoirs and the Colorado river looks very frightening. Now is the time to make change and sacrifice for the sake of not only mother earth, but for our treasure and sacred natural resource: water.
“We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds, fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to live” – Prince William
The Colorado Basin consists of seven states and covers 276,000 square miles and flows all the way to Mexico. This basin contributes to the Colorado River, and it is over 1,400 miles long. The basin is divided into two sections, the upper and lower basins. The upper basin includes the states of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico; the lower basin consists of Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. Since 1880, the earth’s temperature has risen by 2%, which is 0.14 Fahrenheit (0.08 Celsius) per decade (climate.gov). Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Lin and James interviewed experts who claim, the “Colorado River Crisis is so bad, lakes Mead and Powell are unlikely to refill in our lifetime” and that “research has shown that for each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit), the river’s (Colorado) average flow is likely to decrease about 9%.” The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that warmer temperatures have reduced our rain/snow fall due to evaporation. Of course, the southwest gets significantly less precipitation than other parts of the country. The southwest, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), received an average rainfall that is less than 3% of what the area surrounding Atlanta gets. The increase of global temperatures lead to more larger storms and rain, however, the warmer climate causes more rain than snow to fall. Snow is needed for the mountain to melt off in the spring for water supply. According to USGS, around 75% of our water supply in the western United States comes from the snowpacks. These measurements and data only confirm what we have observed to be true about the Colorado River. When precipitation decreases, the drought begins. Two weeks without rain can be detrimental to crops and the land. We may not even know we are in a drought; months to years can accrue without realizing there is a drought condition. The Colorado River has been in a drought for at least 23 years, and likely longer. Now that we have just entered spring, the potential for the rain to fall can be good for the river, and there is still a significant amount of snow on the mountains that feed into the Colorado River. A better calculation of these precipitation results will come a few months later. But once spring ends, the summer begins. Lin and James state, “Now the water use is maxed out. Every state is taking too much, and we have to cut back. And so there’s just not enough. You would need wet year after wet year, after wet year after wet year, after wet year.”
“The Earth is my mother, and on her bosom I shall repose.” -Tecumseh
Where and how is the Colorado River used and wasted? The upper basin uses 59% for hydroelectric power, 30 % for irrigation, 6% inter basin transfer, 3% wastewater returns, 1% public supply, and 1% thermoelectric. For the lower basin, 69% hydroelectric, 13% irrigation, 10% inter basin transfer, 4% public supply, 2% wastewater returns, 1% commercial, and 1% thermoelectric. The Bureau of Reclamation states the Colorado compacts of 1922 allows seven states to use 7,500,000 acre-feet of the Colorado River, but they do not state how the water is to be divided among the basins. By 1948, five states: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming submitted an Upper Colorado River basin compact designed to designate how much water is promised to each state in the upper basin.
Colorado River Upper Basin Water Usage (chart created by author)
California has the highest overall water rights to the river; the first decree of the 7,500,000 acre-feet of the lower basin water is 4,400,000 acre-feet of water. Arizona receives the second highest amount given, which is 2,850,000 acre-feet of water from the upper and lower basin; the third most is Nevada with 300,000 acre-feet. The Hoover dam is where the lower basin receives water and electricity, and the Glen Canyon Dam, located in Page, Arizona, is where the upper basin sustains life. The Hoover Dam allocates most of its resources to southern cities in the state of California, 10 cities in total. Los Angeles at 15% and the Metropolitan Water district of California receiving the most at 28%. Arizona consumes 18% and Nevada 23%. With the basins combined, 3% of the Colorado is used for public supply. Southern California, Phoenix (AZ) and Las Vegas (NV) are growing rapidly, and all three states use the most of the Colorado River. And all have another crucial thing in common—they are all in the desert. Southern California has over 600 golf courses, Las Vegas has 358 hotels (10 of them are the largest hotels in the world), and Phoenix has the 5th largest population in the United States of 1.6 million people. These cities keep growing in population and expanding more water-thirsty infrastructure. When this occurs, more water is being used and the demand for it is growing as well. The Colorado River is all we have and we are draining it.
Colorado River Lower Basin Water Usage
On January 31, 2023 six out of seven states in the Colorado Basin submitted a Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative to Bureau of Reclamation to help sustain the water levels from decreasing further—ultimately, trying to save the Colorado River system. For Lake Powell reservoir, the plan states that if the water levels drop below 3,525 ft, the MAF (million acre-feet) will be reduced to 7.48. If the water capacity diminishes to a certain amount, these states will need to make due with less water. If the water reaches 1,030 ft, additional reductions will occur for all three states.
Out of the seven states, California has not agreed nor signed the consensus plan. Of the 40 million people the Colorado river serves, the water rights of the Metropolitan water district of southern California include 19 million people, and 26 cities, including Los Angeles and San Diego. The future looks uncertain, especially with minimal efforts to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, overproduction of infrastructure, gas powered cars, and waste. These also contribute to climate change because of the carbon dioxide, littering our land while destroying our ecosystem, and using natural resources in excess e.g. trees and water. Rain/snow, drought, and excessive use of the Colorado river are all symptoms of climate change.
Our planet is becoming hotter every decade, and instead of conserving the Colorado River, we are creating more chaos for our next generation and the next. The human race's fundamental values have changed, and it seems as if our society lives in a mental state of more. More houses, apartments, entertainment, faster transportation, and more of anything that gives us convenience and a lot of options. Instead of always being first and being innovative, let's change our mental state to work on what we NEED rather than what we WANT. We need to make some sacrifices: the wealthy, middle, and working class. As water availability decreases, everyday we make decisions on how to use this water–and we are not making wise decisions that reflect the seriousness of the situation. Stop building more casinos, replace half of the swimming pools at any hotel in Las Vegas, and introduce more restrictions to all of the seven states that depend on the Colorado River. I hope as time goes on, my Shima’ and I will still stand on the cliff of the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon offering corn pollen to the confluence. Hopefully, the gentle blue water can continue to flow through the red earth, under the father–the Sun, and under the mother–the Moon with her stars. Under my feet is mother earth, she is brown like me, has a river that flows through her like blood, and we both have beating hearts like cores that keeps us moving. My Shima’ is a reflection of Mother earth, she birthed my mother and my mother birthed me. If the Colorado River is gone, Mother earth will soon cease to exist, and so will my Dine’ people.
Lin II, R-G, & James, I. (2023, February 5th). Colorado River Crisis is so bad, Lakes Mead and Powell are unlikely to refill in our lifetime. Los Angeles Times. March 28th 2023.
Communications & Publishing Staff. A Century of Watching the Colorado River: U.S. Geological survey. U.S. Geological Survey. U.S. Department of Interior. March 28th 2023.
Water Resources Mission Area. (2018, October 16). Colorado River Basin Focus Area Study. U.S. Geological Survey. March 28th, 2023. U.S. Dept of Interior.
Reclamation, B. of (Last updated 1/23). Interior Region 7. Upper Colorado, Glen Dam/ Upper Colorado Region/ Bureau of Reclamation. March 28th, 2023.
Reclamation, B. of (Last updated 8/18). Lower Colorado Region. Hoover Dam/ Frequently asked questions and answers. Bureau of Reclamation. March 28th, 2023.
"Climate Change Indicators." Environmental Protection Agency, 1 Jan. 2007, Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.
Lindsey, Rebecca, and Jessica Blunden. "Climate Change Indicators." Climate Change: Global Temperature, 18 Jan. 2023, Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.
Prince William: Great Minds should focus on saving Earth not space travel. YouTube. Guardian News. 14 Oct 2021.
Water Science School. Snowmelt Runoff and the Water Cycle. USGS. 12th June 2019. Accessed 30th March. 2023.
United States Geological Survey. Lake Powell at Glen Canyon Dam, AZ 09379900. April 9th, 2023.
Lakes Online. Lake Mead Water Level. Mead.USLakes. info. April 9th, 23.
Water Science School, "Droughts: Things to Know." USGS, 8 Jun. 2018. Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.
Bureau of Reclamation. March 23 24-Month Study Projections Lake Powell and Lake Mead: End of month elevation charts. 14 March 2023. U.S. Department of Interior. Accessed: April 3rd, 2023.
Tecumseh. Mother Earth: An American story. Religious Studies, College of Arts and Sciences. University of Colorado Boulder. Accessed: April 3rd, 2023.
Bureau of Reclamation. (Last updated March 15th, 2023). Upper Colorado Region/ Glen Canyon Dam. Department of Interior. Accessed: April 4th, 2023.
Veronica Yellowhair lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two German Shepard dogs. She is Native American from the Dine’(Navajo) nation and a Junior at Boise State University. Veronica enjoys dancing women’s fancy shawl, writing, reading, and learning about her Dine’language and culture from her mother.