After two decades of severe drought across the West, there’s hope for the Colorado River System.
The “but it’s a dry heat” area of the country has been both hotter and drier the last twenty years as a warmer climate aggravated the already arid region. The drought has sapped the region’s primary water supply, the Colorado River, which provides drinking water and hydropower to tens of millions of people.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell are both part of and fed by the Colorado River. My family visited Lake Powell on our Out West trip in 1998, when the lakes in the region were at or near 100% capacity.
A NASA satellite image of Lake Mead illustrates the dramatic changes the lake has experienced over the last twenty years. Lake Mead is now just over a quarter its normal capacity, and both lakes hit historic lows in the last year. Access to both water and electricity will be affected if the lakes and Colorado River itself drop much lower.
Satellite images showing the drop in water levels at Lake Mead from 2000 to 2022. Image: earthobservatory.nasa.gov
Thankfully, due to major snowstorms across the Rocky Mountains this winter, the Colorado River Basin is expected to take a much-needed big gulp of runoff this year, the largest the watershed has seen since 1997.
The most recent data from the Bureau of Reclamation already notes some improvement from last summer. Lake Mead is now 30% full, and the Upper and Lower Colorado River system is 36% full—a 2% improvement over this time last year (data pulled week of May 15, 2023).
This is good news, but unfortunately it isn’t enough reprieve to reverse over two decades of drought.
Federal Policies to Help the Colorado River
In recent days, three states that rely on the Colorado River Basin for both water and hydropower have gotten closer to reaching a deal with the federal government to voluntarily conserve river water in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal funds.
There are still a few issues remaining to navigate before a deadline at the end of the month, but there’s more unity than ever before between the states, and the states and federal government are closing the gap in their negotiations.
The current plan proposes cutting back three million acre-feet of water over the next three years, with at least $1 billion in federal funds made available through the Inflation Reduction Act to support the region’s efforts.
The goal from the federal government is that a substantial portion of this infusion of funds would go towards long-term water conservation efforts, rather than just paying farmers to fallow fields for a season or two.
There’s more work ahead, but good news and hope are on the horizon.
Long-Term, Sustainable Agricultural Practices that Reduce Water Usage
Colorado River. Image: Mike Newbry
Some ideas presented include more efficient irrigation practices—like drip irrigation, water storage systems, and irrigation scheduling—and lining canals, but there are also other practices farmers can adopt to reduce their dependence on water.
Sustainable soil management practices contribute to water conservation efforts by increasing its water infiltration and water-holding capacity while reducing erosion and runoff. Compost and mulch helps reduce water evaporation, keeps the soil cooler, and decreases weed growth.
Other farmers have started to practice dry farming, crop production that doesn’t rely on irrigation during the dry season. These farmers choose to plant species that are drought-tolerant, like wine grapes, olives, potatoes, and apple trees. There are also other species that are native to arid regions that are naturally water conserving, like maize, cowpeas, and rice.
Cover crops are another common strategy that benefit farmers’ soil management as well as their pocketbooks, providing an additional harvest between cash crop seasons. Cover crops increase soil moisture level and improve water retention, among other benefits.
Conservation tillage, or no-till planting, increases water absorption and reduces evaporation. Crop rotation improves soil health, therefore reducing erosion and increasing infiltration capacity. Rotational grazing increases a field’s water absorption and decreases water runoff.
We Can Conserve Water, Too
Even if your occupation isn’t farming, there are plenty of ways we can make a long-term difference in our water consumption. Eartheasy offers over 45 different ways you can conserve water in your home and yard—some of which we’ve highlighted below.
It will take both national and local efforts to keep places like the Colorado River Basin from drying out.
Things I Didn’t Know about Household Water Conservation
The obvious answer to water conservation is to use less water—install water conserving appliances, toilets, and showers; take shorter showers; wash full loads using a high-efficiency (HE) washer; and so on—but there are even more creative ways to make a difference.
For example, I did not know that running my dishwasher is more efficient than washing dishes by hand. An efficient dishwasher uses half as much water as washing dishes in your sink, saving nearly 5,000 gallons each year.
If you’ve already considered eating Meatless Monday or switching to a vegetarian/vegan diet for health reasons, you’re also making a difference for water conservation. Beef is one of the most water-intensive foods, so reducing your red meat intake will also reduce your water footprint.
And simply choosing to live a more frugal and simple life—buying less of everything—also supports water conservation efforts. Everything requires some water. So less of everything will do water, and your spirit, good.
Save Water Outdoors: Plant Native Species
According to the EPA, as much as 60% of a household’s water usage in the Southwest is spent outdoors, and about half of water that is used for irrigation is wasted due to inefficient irrigation systems.
Many folks who live in these regions are turning to native plant species and landscapes that suit the arid environment in which they live. Plants like succulents, desert wildflowers, cactuses, and various shrubs and trees that are well adapted to drought conditions are a great choice. Garden Chronicle offers this list of 25 plants that are perfect for arid and desert gardens.
If you’re feeling really bold, just do away with the lawn and let your yard reflect the colors and flora of the place you love.
Be Water Smart about Your Lawn and Garden
Just like there are sustainable and efficient irrigation techniques available for farmers, homeowners and backyard gardeners can practice efficient irrigation on their property.
Install an automated watering system or water in the early morning or late in the day. Don’t water on windy days (the wind will carry the water away). Deep-soak your lawn and only water it when it really needs it. According to Eartheasy, most lawns only need about 1” of water a week. You might consider letting the lawn go dormant during dry spells—it’ll spring back at the first sign of morning dew and rainfall. Collect rainwater in rain barrels to use in your garden instead of your local water supplier.
The God of Living Water Makes Streams in the Desert
Jesus used the metaphor of living water to explain how his followers would interact with the world.
“Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them,” he said (John 7:38 NIV).
Together as the body of Christ, God can work through all of his image bearers to restore the Colorado River Basin and bring new life back to our drought-stricken regions. Taking these steps puts our theology into practice.
“I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs” (Isaiah 41:18 NIV).