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Thursday, June 24 at 2:00 pm

Colorado River Reckoning: Drought, Climate And Equal Access

The Colorado River hydrates more than 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to the US-Mexico border -- but it's not equally divided. And as our climate gets hotter and drier, water managers worry there simply may no longer be enough to go around.

After another record-setting hot and dry year in 2020, the western U.S. is now in widespread extreme drought. The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are dropping to historic lows, putting water supply and the hydropower they generate at risk.

Lake Mead has fallen to the lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s after the construction of the Hoover Dam.

“It’s sending a message to the whole basin saying we don't have enough water to meet all of the needs that exist within the basin,” says Colorado journalist Luke Runyon.

This comes at a time when states and tribes are gearing up to begin the next round of negotiations on how to share the water — and ensure everyone has access.

Tribal water users, historically left out of those talks, are hoping to have a bigger say in those basin-wide negotiations, and to finally correct an historic injustice by ensuring universal access to clean water for tribes.

A 2019 report by the nonprofit Dig Deep found staggering rates of inequity in terms of access to clean water.

“If you were Native American, you were 19 times more likely to not have plumbing in your home, compared to white people,” says Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Associate Attorney Bidtah Becker.

“Climate change is not new; we’ve known about it since the 1970s, and we’ve seen the effects, and tribes are on the front line of it,” Becker says. “That cannot prevent the federal government to living up to the responsibility to getting clean drinking water to all homes in Indian country.”

As the climate crisis increases pressure on the limited water supply within the Colorado River Basin, water conservation will play a much bigger role, says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director with the National Audubon Society.

“Until very recently, the entire exercise was focused on taking more water out of the river and putting it into use on the land. And I’m not saying there haven’t already been some robust investments in water conservation, but I am saying we’ve only begun to tap that potential,” Pitt says.

Water sharing agreements and other flexible policies can also help apportion this increasingly limited resource.

“I hope that as we confront declining water supply in the West, as we confront rivers drying, we as a society can have the foresight to realize that the choices that we’re making today are going to have significant consequences — not just for our own future, but for our children and their children and on and on,” Pitt says.


Luke Runyon

Bidtah Becker
Associate Attorney, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority

Jennifer Pitt
Colorado River Program Director, Audubon

To listen to the audio of “Colorado River Reckoning: Drought, Climate And Equal Access” on Climate One online, please click HERE.