Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow

Climate
Horseshoe Bend (seen above) is a horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River in Page, Arizona. didier.camus / Flickr / public domain

Millions of people rely on the Colorado River, but the climate crisis is causing the river to dry up, putting many at risk of "severe water shortages," according to new research, as The Guardian reported.


Longer periods of drought and rising temperatures have decreased the river's annual flow by 20 percent compared to the last century. The researchers, who published their study in Science, say that global heating has caused mountain snowpacks that feed the river to disappear, which leads to increased evaporation, as The Washington Post reported.

"That's the thing I found most fascinating about this study," lead author Chris Milly of the U.S. Geological Survey said to KNAU. "As the snow cover dwindles due to warming, it's reflecting less sunlight back to the atmosphere. So the basin's absorbing more sunlight. That sunlight is powering evaporation out of the basin. Now when that evaporation—the water is taken out of the basin due to the evaporation, there's less water flowing down the river to the 40 million people that are waiting for it."

Snow and ice reflect sunlight back away from the Earth's surface, a phenomenon known as the albedo effect. The loss of snow and ice means the Earth absorbs more heat.

Milly and his research partner, Krista A. Dunne, found that for every degree Celsius of warming, the river's flow decreases 9.3 percent. Recent studies have confirmed that the river's steady decreased flow since 2000 is due to rising temperatures. The decline has amounted to 1.5 billion tons of missing water, equal to the annual water consumption of 10 million Americans, as The Washington Post reported.

About 40 million people live along the Colorado and it supports nearly $1 trillion in economic activity each year and provides 16 million jobs. Its waters cover a wide expanse, according to The Washington Post. Its waters are channeled as far away as California's Imperial Valley and central Arizona, where its used to irrigate crops, as well as across the Rockies to supply drinking water for Colorado's biggest cities. The Colorado feeds the two largest water reserves in the U.S., Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Mead supplies Las Vegas with almost all of its water, as The Guardian reported. The huge reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam has dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s.

So far the world has heated up by about 1 degree Celsius over pre-industrial times, but it is on course to rise 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century unless emissions are drastically cut, as The Guardian reported. For the Colorado River this means, an "increasing risk of severe water shortages," the study says. Increased rainfall will not offset the loss in reflective snow.

"This has important implications for water users and managers alike," Brad Udall, a senior scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on water supplies in the west who was not involved in the research said, as The Guardian reported. "More broadly, these results tell us that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as we possible can. We've wasted nearly 30 years bickering over the science. The science is crystal clear – we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately."

Andrew Mueller, general manager for the Colorado River District, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that the new findings provide "confirmation of significantly grim indicators about future flow in the Colorado River."

He added that the amount of water that would disappear with another 1 degree C temperature rise is nearly five times what Las Vegas uses each year. "A decline in flows of this magnitude will present a significant challenge to all inhabitants in the Colorado River Basin."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a White House Clean Energy Investment Summit on June 16, 2015 in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

With presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden's climate platform becoming increasingly ambitious thanks to nonstop grassroots pressure, fossil fuel executives and lobbyists are pouring money into the coffers of President Donald Trump's reelection campaign in the hopes of keeping an outspoken and dedicated ally of dirty energy in the White House.

Read More Show Less
The Food and Drug Administration is now warning against more than 100 potentially dangerous hand sanitizers.
Antonio_Diaz / Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now warning against more than 100 potentially dangerous hand sanitizers.

Read More Show Less
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference on July 1, 2020 in New York City. Byron Smith / Getty Images

While the nation overall struggles with rising COVID cases, New York State is seeing the opposite. After peaking in March and April and implementing strict shutdowns of businesses, the state has seen its number of positive cases steadily decline as it slowly reopens. From coast-to-coast, Governor Andrew Cuomo's response to the crisis has been hailed as an exemplar of how to handle a public health crisis.

Read More Show Less
A whale shark swims in the Egyptian Red Sea. Derek Keats / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Gavin Naylor

Sharks elicit outsized fear, even though the risk of a shark bite is infinitesimally small. As a marine biologist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, I oversee the International Shark Attack File – a global record of reported shark bites that has been maintained continuously since 1958.

Read More Show Less
A girl sits under a temporary shade made by joining two bed in Churu, Rajasthan on June 4, 2019. Temperatures in the Indian desert city hit 50 degrees C (122 F) for the second time in three days, sending residents scrambling for shade. MONEY SHARMA / AFP via Getty Images

Current efforts to curb an infectious disease show the potential we have for collective action. That action and more will be needed if we want to stem the coming wave of heat-related deaths that will surpass the number of people who die from all infectious diseases, according to a new study, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
America Pikas are found from the Sierra Nevada to the Rocky Mountains, and have been migrating to higher elevations. Jon LeVasseur / Flickr / Public Domain

By Jenny Morber

Caribbean corals sprout off Texas. Pacific salmon tour the Canadian Arctic. Peruvian lowland birds nest at higher elevations.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Biologists are studying the impact of climate change on the Nenets and their reindeer herds. Deutsche Welle

Biologist Egor Kirillin is on a special mission. Deep in the Siberian wilderness in the Russian Republic of Sakha, he waits on the Olenjok river until reindeer come thundering into the water.

Read More Show Less