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Historic drought and climate change push Colorado River to record low levels


John Berggren is a water policy analyst with the Western Resource Advocates, and he joins us next. This is a nonprofit that supports policies against climate change.

Welcome to the program.

JOHN BERGGREN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: How is the Colorado River Basin - which is huge, by the way, covers states - how is that basin visibly changing?

BERGGREN: Yeah. So the Colorado River, which starts up in - high in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Wyoming and flows down to the states into California, Arizona and down into Mexico - what we're seeing, as was just reported by Luke, is the reservoirs are declining, and the river is shrinking. And so one example is one of the largest reservoirs, this one that we were just talking about - Lake Powell - as that has declined it has actually exposed what a beautiful canyon that the river flows through, Glen Canyon. And so you're seeing this new - this canyon emerge from the declining reservoir. And so that's just one example of how we're seeing the river change as reservoirs continue to decline.

INSKEEP: And let me make sure I understand the geography here. You got Lake Powell. But further down the river, you got Lake Mead, right? And that's the one that's getting so low that there might be a problem with getting water through the hydroelectric power plants inside the Hoover Dam.

BERGGREN: Yeah. They're - so both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are getting so low, there's concerns about hydropower. Importantly, between those two reservoirs is the Grand Canyon, one of the most iconic national parks in the country. And what we're talking about is, could the upstream reservoir, Lake Powell, be so low it has trouble releasing water into the Grand Canyon, which would then flow down into Lake Mead? And then there's challenges in the future about Lake Mead being able to deliver water as well.

INSKEEP: It was significant when we heard Luke Runyon say this has been coming for a couple of decades. I am recalling stories about the Colorado River drying up maybe 20 years ago, stories about how so much water was taken along the way that none of it actually reaches the Sea of Cortez at the end. It's a dry river at its own mouth. How long has this moment been coming?

BERGGREN: I really appreciate Luke's answer earlier, where he said this is more than two decades in the making. We've known this problem for many, many decades. This goes back to 1922, when the river was originally divvied up. And they overallocated. They divvied up more water than the Colorado River can actually supply. And so, as you point out, the first impact was it no longer reached the ocean and the Sea of Cortez. That's been happening for decades. And now we're seeing the ripple effects upstream, where the large reservoirs that were buffers during the bad years - those are getting so low they can no longer be buffers. And so we're seeing the culmination of this decadeslong overallocation of the river finally manifesting itself.

INSKEEP: Do you see life permanently changing in parts of the country and the world, since it's Mexico too, that rely on water from this basin?

BERGGREN: I don't see life fundamentally changing. I do see us coming to live within our water means and recognizing that we do live in an arid and semiarid environment out here in the West. And that means living with less water. It doesn't mean not living. It doesn't mean not thriving. It doesn't mean not having beautiful rivers and flowing rivers and amazing ecosystems. It just means that the communities that rely on this river are going to have to use less. And we know how to do that.

INSKEEP: I'm recalling a report, a sort of forecast for the Phoenix metro area, forecasting that by maybe 2035, water would be short enough in supply that there'd be no grass, and therefore there would be a lot more dust. And it'd be like living in Kabul or some city in the desert. Is that part of the future?

BERGGREN: No, I don't think so. So certainly we have to look at how we use the water from this river, and that includes landscapes, outdoor landscapes. But it's not an either-or. It's not turf grass or dust. There are amazing, beautiful landscapes that we can establish out here in the Southwest that, again, allow our communities to thrive, allow us to live and have the quality of life that we enjoy out here with beautiful landscapes that are not dust and dry and apocalyptic. It's - we can have the beautiful, verdant communities that we want.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's good. What is one other solution that people could aim for that would be not a real decline in life, but just a little different life?

BERGGREN: Again, if you look - the Southwest, where the Colorado River is - one of the fastest-growing places in the country, and we can look to our growing cities and towns to be leaders when it comes to water conservation. And again, this doesn't mean we can't live here; we can't thrive here. It just means we're going to have to really look at our - how we use water indoors, how we use water outdoors. We look at our land use planning. We look at how we reuse water, recycle water. There's all these tools that we have available to allow us to, again, live here with the quality of life that we have come to expect in the Southwest, just using way less water.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Berggren, thanks for your insights. I really appreciate it.

BERGGREN: Yeah. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: John Berggren of Western Resource Advocates.

Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.