THE COLORADO RIVER IS IN CRISIS, AND IT’S GETTING WORSE EVERY DAY

The Colorado River is in crisis — one deepening by the day.

It is a powerhouse: a 1,450-mile waterway that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez, serving 40 million people in seven U.S. states, 30 federally recognized tribes and Mexico. It hydrates 5 million acres of agricultural land and provides critical habitat for rare fish, birds and plants.

Wyo.

Salt Lake City

Utah

Colo.

Colorado River

Upper

Basin

Nev.

Las

Vegas

Santa Fe

Lower

Basin

N.M.

Ariz.

Calif.

Phoenix

U.S.

MEXICO

200 MILES

But the Colorado’s water was overpromised when it was first allocated a century ago. Demand in the fast-growing Southwest exceeds supply, and it is growing even as supply drops amid a climate change-driven megadrought and rising temperatures.

States and cities are now scrambling to forestall the gravest impacts to growth, farming, drinking water and electricity, while also aiming to protect their own interests.

In an emergency move this month, the federal government held back water from Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, where the water is at a historic low. Days before, Las Vegas turned on a low-level pumping station that will deliver water from fast-drying Lake Mead, the largest U.S. reservoir, even if the Hoover Dam fails.

Across the river basin, the tremors of this crisis are already being felt throughout communities that depend on the Colorado.

The Washington Post traveled along the river, from its start to its finish, to examine how people and places are coping with a shrinking lifeline in a hotter and drier landscape.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

1

THE HEADWATERS

The Colorado River begins as mere streams in a marshy meadow 10,000 feet high in Rocky Mountain National Park. A few miles south, crystal-clear waters burble through the Kawuneeche Valley, its banks flanked in summer by wildflowers, spiky fallen trees and a dusty hiking trail. Small fish flicker over the stony bottom.

The river is ankle-deep and narrow, hardly hinting at its outsize role as it twists down mountains, through canyons and across Southwestern deserts. But climate change, population growth, competition and other threats to the entire waterway are also vivid here in the headwaters region.

Daily amount of water stored as snow

at Lake Irene snow monitoring site

50 inches

1980−2020

average

25

2021–2022

2020–2021

0

Sept.

Jan.

May

Aug.

Source: U.S. Agriculture Department

As temperatures rise, the mountain snowpack that feeds the Colorado river is diminishing over time and melting earlier. That decreasing runoff is more quickly soaking into Western Colorado’s parched terrain and evaporating into its hotter air. Less water is flowing downriver, depriving the ranchers, rafters, anglers and animals who depend on it.

“It feels to me like the future is accelerating really quickly now,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, which spans 15 Western Colorado counties. “We’ve been talking to our water users about the impacts of climate change and decreasing supply of water on the river for probably eight or nine years now. It’s really kind of hitting home.”

There are no major reservoirs above the headwaters, so many of those who raise cattle, wheat and onions in the region, Mueller said, “depend on direct flow from the river. When the river’s down, there’s just not enough water to go around.”

But even before the Colorado lands in the valley, distant demands on its water begin. About 30 percent of the runoff from the nearby Never Summer Mountains, which would naturally flow into the river, is diverted by a channel called the Grand Ditch and delivered to Colorado’s arid and fast-growing east.

It is one of dozens of ditches and tunnels and reservoirs that underlie a common complaint on this side of the Rockies: About 80 percent of Colorado’s precipitation falls here on the Western Slope. About 80 percent of the state’s population lives on the other side — and those residents think too little about where their water comes from, people in the west say.

The changing river has stolen business from Mike Ivy, owner of a bait and tackle store in the town of Granby. In recent summers, state wildlife officials have discouraged or prohibited fishing on stretches of the Colorado and its tributaries, because low and warm waters stress and kill fish. Even in the absence of restrictions, Ivy no longer goes out past midday in the late spring and summer. The water temperatures are too high.

“We’re probably dropping at least 10 to 15 percent off our guide services, just because we’re not guiding in the evening,” Ivy said. “We can’t do it, because we don’t want to mess up the ecosystem and the fish.”

Last summer, Denver — which gets half its water from the Colorado and its tributaries — took less water than it was entitled to from headwaters creeks, helping raise and cool waters in the Colorado and a main tributary, the Fraser River. The city said it was able to do so because a wet spring reduced demand among its users. But it made clear it will have less “flexibility” as Denver grows larger and hotter.

Still, that water release was a good sign to Kirk Klancke, president of the headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited, one environmental organization that has opted in recent years to collaborate with rather than constantly battle “diverters,” as he calls Front Range water suppliers.

“The diverters have the legal right to kill these rivers,” Klancke said of the band of cities and communities immediately east of the Rocky Mountains. “Slowly, cultures are changing.”

Maybe too slowly. Over five decades in the headwaters region, Klancke said, he has seen the first significant snowfall shift from mid-September to mid-November. He worries development will race forth with little regard for water supply and that “ecosystems are going to crash because we’re too myopic.”

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

2

THE RANCHES

Janie VanWinkle maneuvered her pickup slowly through a mud puddle last summer, careful not to splash. It had rained an inch overnight, another precious monsoon shower she hoped would coax green stems from the dun expanses where her cattle grazed.

After two decades of drought, the last few years particularly harsh, VanWinkle knew the rains were not game-changers. But even an inch of water could slake the thirst of a few of her cows and maybe some wild elk and deer, too. “It’s conservation!” she said.

Drought in the Colorado River Basin

100%

Abnormally

dry

No drought

Moderate

drought

50%

Severe

Extreme

Exceptional

drought

0%

2020

2021

2022

Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

VanWinkle was driving on top of southwest Colorado’s 10,000-foot-high Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, dotted with lakes and reservoirs fed each spring by a diminishing amount of snow. Below the mesa, the cocoa-colored Colorado River wove languidly through the Grand Valley. Along the way, its waters irrigated peach orchards, vineyards and ranchlands that host tens of thousands of cattle, some belonging to VanWinkle.

But shrinking flows, prolonged drought and rising temperatures are forcing constant calculations in this agriculture-heavy section of the Upper Colorado River Basin. For the VanWinkle family, which typically runs 550 cows on patches of mostly leased land throughout the area — some with rights to Colorado River water — it has meant using genetic selection to raise cattle that produce more beef on less food.

Over the past two years, it has also meant reducing the family’s herd by about one-fifth. Hay, which the family feeds to cows that don’t have enough to eat on dry terrain, had become scarce and skyrocketed in price.

“When you walk across the field, and every step you take you hear this ‘crunch, crunch,’ that is just painful. There’s no other word for it,” VanWinkle said. “Springs that have always run — and I’ve lived here my whole life — are barely running just a trickle or are dry.”

For Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, a job that once was about supplying Colorado River water to farmers and returning some to the river has become a whirlwind of competing interests. Endangered fish need protection. Outdoors enthusiasts and environmentalists want a cleaner, healthier river. “Explosive growth” is generating more thirsty golf courses and subdivisions. Farmers require more water to produce the same yield on drought-stricken land.

“Increased irrigation needs in a period of reduced supply — that’s really the crux of the entire issue,” Harris said. “For those of us who are supposed to be serving those people both rural and urban, we use the term ‘fear,’ simply because it is kind of scary. We try to prepare as opposed to panic.”

To cope with less water, he said, farmers are rotating crops, changing irrigation methods and sometimes fallowing land or selling animals.

Looming over all this are fears about a “compact call”: If flows drop so low that upper-basin states cannot send downstream the amount of water required under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, lower-basin states could impose cutbacks here.

To forestall that, water suppliers and experts are discussing “demand management”: paying those with water rights to use less and send the savings to Lake Powell in Arizona, the second-largest reservoir on the Colorado.

What shape that might take — and its effect on the farming and ranching that define the Grand Valley — is unclear.

“It has to be voluntary and temporary, and it has to be compensated,” VanWinkle said.

But, she added as she gazed across a valley hazy with smoke from distant California wildfires, she hoped cuts would hit lawns and fountains first.

They “might have a little less impact on our society than food producers,” she said. “It depends on your priorities. But at some point, you’re hungry.”

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

3

THE DAM

Even the Glen Canyon dam is struggling.

The water level in Lake Powell has dropped more than 30 feet in the last several years and is now at a historic low. Continued drought could imperil the dam’s ability to produce power that serves millions of people in the West.

Reservoir storage volume

In millions acre-feet

20

10

Lake Powell

Lake Mead

0

2000

2020

2000

2020

Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

One acre-foot of water equals the volume of water that covers one acre of land at a depth of one foot.

Bob Martin, who has managed the dam for seven years, has never seen the reservoir full. If drought conditions persist, he projects Lake Powell could fall to 35 feet above the minimum power pool — the point at which the dam will no longer be able to produce electricity. “If you live in the Southwest, this impacts you,” said Martin. ”If changes aren’t made, you’re going to see it.”

Waterways near the dam have been affected, too.

Mike DeHoff has been a rafting guide on the Colorado River for more than 30 years. Much of that time has been spent floating down Cataract Canyon, near Moab, Utah, which was swallowed up by Lake Powell after the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1966.

As Lake Powell has steadily receded, it has exposed dramatic mud cliffs. DeHoff’s group, Returning Rapids, is documenting the reemergence of the canyon and the return of the river, as it cuts through the silt deposits left by Lake Powell and tries to reclaim its original path.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

4

THE CITY

One minute after 8 a.m. last summer, Perry Kaye jumped out of his SUV, its amber lights flashing. He quickly began shooting video of an offense this city takes seriously: water waste.

Population

trends, by county

In millions

Daily water use

per capita

In gallons

Los Angeles, CA

10

200

5

Maricopa, AZ

100

Clark, NV

0

0

1985

2015

1985

2015

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

A sprinkler misted the modest front lawn of a stucco house, its spray making a rainbow in the morning light and fueling a trickle that flowed into the street. It ran for more than four minutes — a violation but a first-time one for this address. Kaye hung a warning on the garage door. If it happened again, he would issue an $80 fine and double it with each violation after that.

“They’re watering too long, because it’s running off as well as spraying off,” Kaye said.

Kaye is one of about a dozen water waste investigators who patrol this desert city with the mission of saving every scarce drop. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from the shrinking Colorado River, and aggressive sprinkler monitoring is one of several methods it has adopted over the past two decades to keep that supply coming.

It has worked better than the city, with its casino fountains and air-conditioned sprawl, gets credit for, experts say. Even as the population served by the Las Vegas Valley Water District has nearly doubled since the turn of the century, its per capita water use has fallen 48 percent, to 110 gallons per day.

The utility’s latest goal is to drop that figure to 86 gallons per day by 2035. But climate change means it will have to work even harder to do so, said Colby Pellegrino, the district’s deputy general manager for resources.

“If our population didn’t grow and water use didn’t change at all throughout time, this community would use more water,” Pellegrino said. “And that’s because the warming, drier conditions that we expect to see are going to drive use up.”

All indoor water that “hits a drain," she said — toilets, sinks, showers — is treated and returned to Lake Mead. (The water in the gondola canals at the Venetian resort, meanwhile, is recirculated.) The focus now is on conserving outdoor water that evaporates into the scorching atmosphere, such as that from sprinklers.

To do this, the city prohibits grass in new front yards and limits it in backyards. It pays residents to rip out their sod. It imposes strict watering schedules and limits. Last year, state lawmakers banned “nonfunctional” grass in southern Nevada by 2027, which consumes about 10 percent of the area’s water supply — double the amount used by hotels and resorts. Grassy medians and parking-lot strips are already being uprooted.

Las Vegas is the premiere example of water conservation underway in cities throughout the Colorado River Basin, said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources program. Although these desert metropolises are often viewed as absurdities, they use much less of the Colorado than agriculture, which takes about 70 percent of its water. Most cities have dramatically reduced consumption even while expanding, Fleck said.

That is not to say the West’s booming population and water scarcity aren’t on a collision course. Two fast-growing Utah towns last year halted construction because of a declining water supply. Farmers worry that as more people stream to cities and towns — which typically have junior rights to Colorado River water — urban areas will use their political and economic muscle to buy or lease agricultural users’ senior rights, forever changing ranching and farming in the basin.

For the foreseeable future, Fleck said, cities’ expansion will be limited by how much they spend to recycle or desalinate water — and how comfortable they are with shades of brown.

“The challenge is not that they’ll run out of water, but that they’ll have to do harder and harder things and be a lot less green,” Fleck said. Cities and towns that “don’t want to live in a community with no green space … that puts limits on our growth. But that means the limits are not imposed by hydrology, but they’re imposed by our community values.”

Las Vegas’s embrace of a bigger but less grassy future has been good business for Jeff Spiegel. A former Chicago attorney, he founded his Las Vegas artificial turf company, Leisure Lawn, in 2002 — just as a megadrought was descending on the West.

“Right after we got into it, the water shortage became front page news,” Spiegel said as he oversaw a crew replacing a rock yard with fake turf on a 100-degree August morning. “It kind of helped my company blow up.”

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

5

THE TRIBAL LANDS

The Colorado River, source of water for 40 million people in the Southwest, flows through the Arizona desert just a few miles from Lena Haskey’s house. Haskey, a member of the Navajo Nation, gets none of it.

Haskey’s home, a one-room octagon at the base of a striated rocky rise, has no running water at all. The five-gallon camp shower she and two grandnieces use to bathe — a plastic bag hanging from the ceiling just inside her entryway — is filled with groundwater. That water comes from a communal well 10 miles away, where Haskey, 66, pumps it into barrels that she ferries home in her Dodge minivan.

“We are living without water for a long time,” Haskey, who built the house in Bitter Springs with her father in 1974, said matter-of-factly.

As much as 40 percent of Navajo Nation residents have no indoor plumbing, the result of decades of marginalization by states and the federal government, as well as a lack of water delivery infrastructure and money to build it. Homes go without water despite the reservation’s proximity to the most critical waterway in the region, one to which Navajo Nation has a claim.

The nation, like 29 other tribes in the Colorado River Basin, has rights to the river’s water under Supreme Court rulings. But access to it varies widely.

Twenty-two tribes have quantified rights to about a quarter of the Colorado’s annual average flows. Some have senior rights, such as the Colorado River Indian Tribes, which has contributed water to prop up Lake Mead in exchange for federal compensation.

“This all goes down to saving the life of the river, until there’s an end to the drought,” said Margaret Vick, the tribe’s water attorney. “But we can’t see that in the near future.”

Other tribes don’t have the equipment to access their water, so it just flows along to be used by others — it is “paper water,” in water rights lingo. The Navajo Nation has settled its rights in Utah and New Mexico but is still negotiating with Arizona to quantify how much of the state’s allotment of river water it deserves.

That process is adversarial, experts say, even though the water will still stay in Arizona — with Navajos who live there and need it.

More broadly, there is tension between tribes’ efforts to claim water that is rightfully theirs at a time when everyone in the basin must cut back. But as negotiations get underway over the river’s management guidelines, which expire in 2026, tribes are demanding a voice they have long been denied.

“We’ve lived sustainably in the basin for more than 10,000 years,” said Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache tribe and co-director of Water and Tribes in the Colorado River Basin. “And so there might be something that you can learn from us in terms of living sustainably.”

Bidtah Becker, a Navajo attorney who has long worked on tribal water rights, said she is hopeful. The racial justice movement, she said, has highlighted tribes’ unmet legal rights to water but also crystallized their moral rights to it. Experts say a lack of clean water contributed to a coronavirus wave that devastated Navajo Nation in 2020.

“People never cared about Indians as much in my career until right now,” Becker said. “They were seeing and feeling the effects of water inequality literally leading to death.”

For many Navajo, a resolution — and running water — cannot come soon enough, said Dorothy Lee, president of the Bodaway-Gap Chapter of Navajo Nation, where Haskey lives.

“The elders, we have regular meetings, and for years, they ask, ‘Why don’t we have any water? The river’s just right there. How come we don’t have access to it?’ ” Lee said.

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

6

THE CANAL

Every minute, a pair of pumps powered by old Chevrolet 454 engines loudly spew 20,000 gallons into a network of ditches on Brian Wong’s southern Arizona farm.

But before it gets here, the liquid traverses the entire state, all the way from the Colorado River.

It is delivered by the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile-long concrete canal that shoots off a river riddled with infrastructure directing and storing its flow. The water begins at Lake Havasu on the California border, where it is first pumped 800 feet uphill, then propelled across the desert by 14 pumping plants to Phoenix, Tucson and the towns, tribes, ranches and fields in between.

Since its completion in the early 1990s, the aqueduct has underpinned Arizona’s tremendous growth and helped Wong’s 4,000 acres of Sonoran Desert bloom with organic grains, cotton and alfalfa. Now, it is also a symbol of the drought-stricken West and a harbinger of a more uncertain future.

An unprecedented shortage on the Colorado River brought significant cuts this year to Arizona’s water supply, about one-third of which courses through the canal. That’s because the state agreed decades ago to junior rights to the river in exchange for federal funding for the Central Arizona Project, known as the CAP.

Within the CAP system, the farmers and ranchers who work central Arizona fields have lower priority. They have lost about two-thirds of their supply, and the state’s Farm Bureau says many will have to let their land go dry.

The canal looks the same with less water, but it now flows a bit more slowly, said DeEtte Person, a spokeswoman at the project’s headquarters in Phoenix, where a quartet of water control operators sit before stacks of computer monitors in a dim room, tracking and directing the water through gates and turnouts across the state.

With more cuts expected in coming years, Person said, the CAP is already envisioning moving non-Colorado River water through the canal, perhaps groundwater. Water recycling is also being discussed, she said. It’s all part of what she called “long-term disaster planning.”

The canal cuts down the middle of Wong’s farm north of Tucson, and all the farm’s water comes from it. But Wong and the cotton and alfalfa farmers to whom he leases much of his land won’t face cuts — not yet.

Wong, whose great-grandfather started the family farm business after immigrating from China in the late 19th century, will be spared, thanks to the sort of water sharing and trading deals common along a river whose every drop is coveted.

Wong’s water supply technically belongs to Tucson and other municipal providers, which have more protected senior rights than agricultural users. Wong pays them, and they get “credit” for the groundwater accumulating under his acreage — the kind of water on which Arizona depended before the CAP came into existence.

Still, Wong says he works to conserve. Unlike on most farms, his ditches are lined in concrete, to prevent leaching. His fields have been uniformly leveled by a laser attached to the back of a tractor, to prevent pooling or runoff. Although his allotment is for 14,000 acre-feet of water a year — an acre-foot can serve about three Arizona households for one year — he uses about 11,000.

Wong, 34, says the partnership he has with Tucson shows agricultural and municipal water users don’t need to be enemies even as supply shrinks. He’s also not panicking about water in the short- or even medium-term. But he won’t speculate about what could happen decades from now.

“If the CAP just disappeared entirely, then we could go back to groundwater pumping,” Wong said, though that is a finite source. “But I think there’d be a whole lot more hurt going on around the entire region if that happened, not just in farming.”

Rocky Mountain

National Park

Grand Junction

Nev.

Colo. R.

Glen Canyon

Dam

Colo.

Colo.

Bitter

Springs

Las

Vegas

Ariz.

Ariz.

Central Arizona

Project

U.S.

Marana

Colorado

River Delta

MEX.

7

THE END

The Colorado River once flowed across the U.S. border into Mexico, emptying into the Sea of Cortez. But now, the river is dammed at the border, a trickle of what it once was. The loss is felt by the communities, animals and natural wonders that once relied on it.

Mexican farmers now struggle regularly with drought and aging irrigation canals. A once thriving marine ecosystem will never fully recover. But Juan Butrón-Méndez, a bird monitor for the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste, is working to rehabilitate the region’s wetlands and restore life to the delta.

About this story

Editing by Amanda Erickson and Olivier Laurent. Photography by Matt McClain. Video by Erin Patrick O’Connor and Jesús Salazar. Video editing by Jesse Mesner-Hage and Zoeann Murphy. Graphics by John Muyskens. Graphics editing by Monica Ulmanu. Design and development by Leo Dominguez. Design editing by Matthew Callahan and Joe Moore. Copy editing by Susan Stanford. Additional editing by Ann Gerhart.