Colorado River

In order to increase sustainability along the Colorado River Basin, the systems that manage the utilization and allocation of the river's resources need to be as effective and efficient as possible.

The use of water in agriculture needs to be monitored to ensure that a balance is achieved between maintaining the ecosystems, satisfying the need for irrigation and reducing the usage so as to create a substantial amount for storage and reduce the salinity levels of the river. In addition, the problem of the invasive tamarisk needs to be resolved as soon as possible as it has been noted that they consume up to 170,000 acre feet more than the indigenous species per year(Committee on the Scientific Basis of the Colorado River Basin Management, 2007, pp 122). In addition to all these however, the onus of ensuring that the region is able to sustain itself in coming years lies with the inhabitants of this region. It is imperative that water usage patterns, inside and outside the home, change so as to ensure that water is conserved.

Our solution therefore encompasses suggestions that would lead to reduced domestic and agricultural water use in an integrated fashion so to optimize our usage of this precious resource.

Agricultural Overdraw and Salinity Contribution

Since the largest user of Colorado River water is agriculture (US Department of the Interior Reclamation Bureau, 2005, pp.45 [USDIRB]), it can be stated the most important aspect of our solution is reducing agricultural dependence on Colorado River water, as well as using more environmentally sound methods of drainage. Since the vast majority of the salinity in the river, 37%, is accounted for by agriculture's overdrawing and the input of highly saline drainage, it is imperative that irrigation practices are improved in order to reduce the amount of water being taken from the river, and also to improve the quality of the drainage. Agriculture needs to turn to other sources of water, because the rate at which agriculture consumes Colorado River water is unsustainable not only in the United States, but the diminished quality of the water leads to greater cost in the operation and maintenance of the Yuma Desalination plant prior to water release to Mexico. This plant is necessary because the water reaching Mexico requires improvement for Mexican agriculture and municipal use. Improvements in irrigation techniques, and alternative sources of irrigation water, such as recycled water, and crop shifting, could not only increase the flow of the river, subsequently increasing the storage in reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell, but could also improve the water quality, which would reduce the desalination costs for water entering Mexico.

Please follow these links for more information regarding agricultural water conservation and trans-boundary issues.

The plan of action includes a gradual but eventual shift from flood irrigation to drip irrigation in the next twenty years and would be a cost sharing venture between farmers and federal governments. This would definitely have a negative impact on the finances of the farmer in the short run, but for large scale farmer in the long run, it would be more feasible as the output of crops grown under drip irrigation would be greater, and hence greater profits would be achieved. How the agricultural subsidies would be divided would be decided by optimization curves that put into consideration both the quantity of water allocated to that region and also the economic implications in the short and long run. This would be determined by the Departments of Agriculture in each of the states, as they all have different water and budgetary allocations and the economics of these states also differ immensely and may also change with time, likely necessitating region specific design and implementation techniques.

The plan would also include crop shifting to the less water intensive but highly profitable fruits and vegetables. This would be recommended, not for all the land currently under agriculture, but for up to a quarter of the land currently used for grain and cotton.

With regards to agriculture in the Colorado River Basin, if the recommended changes in irrigation efficiency are enacted, the region would save an estimated 445,004 acre-feet a year in Arizona alone (Sonoran Institute, 2007). The specific plan of action assumes that half of all cotton and major vegetables and citrus crops are placed under drip irrigation and therefore consumptive water losses would reduce from 30 percent to 5 percent (Sonoran Institute, 2007). With regards to shifting in crop patterns, if just one quarter of cotton and alfalfa irrigated areas was shifted to higher value citrus and vegetable crops which require less water for growth, we would save 362,000 acre feet per year in the state of Arizona. In total that would be a saving of about 807,000 acre feet in Arizona (Sonoran Institute, 2007) and the lower Colorado River Basin would have the potential to conserve even up to 2 million acre feet (an estimate derived from average conservation potential of Arizona). Once this water is saved in the basin, it will create in-stream flow, which will improve the health of the ecosystem and the quality of the water by reduction of salinity and greater availability of water for the surrounding vegetation and wildlife.

The switch to different irrigating methods would be phased such that the designated subsidy amounts that currently go into flood irrigation, which is currently most prevalent, would now be subdivided into different quotas. This would work in such a way that a certain amount of money goes into financing the present agricultural activities, and a certain amount goes into capital for this new equipment.

The storage of the water that is conserved is a major issue and is discussed at the end of the solution for Colorado River.

Tamarisk as an Invasive Species

Harvey Norraine. Tamarisk on the 5th Street Bridge overlooking the Colorado River in Grand Junction, July 2001. From the Colorado State University edited by Dr. Curtis E. Swift. Published 7/24/2003

The invasive species, Tamarisk, has been taking over natural vegetation in the Colorado River basin, and consumes 170,000 acre feet more annually than the natural vegetation. In order to combat the tamarisk species and alleviate an environmental issue the Colorado River basin is experiencing, the Nature Conservancy has put millions of dollars into getting volunteers to rip down the shrubs, using whatever they can find, such as chainsaws, clippers, herbicides, and heavy machinery. (Nijhuis, 2007). They have treated eighty miles of the San Miguel River in this fashion, and plan to finish the remaining area of the rivers and tributaries. They have experienced a resurgence of native plants, and plan on repeating these treatments to a lesser extreme in the near future. A non-profit group called the Tamarisk Coalition has been implementing some similar treatments near Grand Junction, Colorado (Nijhuis, 2007).

While these treatments are effective in the short term, with a short period of neglect they are reversed. Bulldozing tamarisk to remove it requires a vast amount of funding. One biological method introduced in 2001 to combat the invasive Tamarisk species was the so-called Tamarisk Leaf Beetle, or Diorhabda elongata. These beetles diminish the health of the shrubs, resulting in a resurge of native plants, which consume much less water than Tamarisk, since they are naturally suited for the dry environment of the Southwest. This solution is very risky, since it utilizes biological control. U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologists have determined that the beetle's only target is the Tamarisk plant. Diorhabda is an effective tool in eliminating the Tamarisk, especially since the Tamarisk plant is their only target in the environment, and have been successful in the last seven years. However, it is necessary to replace the wiped out Tamarisk in areas where native vegetation is sparse or nonexistent. In the long term, once the Tamarisk have been eliminated, it is likely that the beetles will not be able to sustain themselves, since their only target is the invasive species. A suggestion for the Colorado River area, as well as the entire southwest, would be to keep treating these plants with Diorhabda, and to allow non-profit and volunteer organizations, such as the Tamarisk Coalition to continue ripping out the species, and also to also replace the dead Tamarisk with native species plants in areas where native vegetation is not found. This would make the takeover by a subsequent exotic species less likely. (Nijhuis, 2007). Efforts to do this are already underway, organized by the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior. In the fall of 2008, efforts to restore 200 acres of native vegetation were carried out in Utah. In this instance, Tamarisk and Russian Olive (another invasive species) were replaced by native cottonwood trees and willows. If re-vegetation efforts were to continue in this manner, more water could be conserved in the Colorado River system, and the ecosystem surrounding the river would also improve (O'Hanlon, 2008).

Domestic Level Conservation and Savings

In order to decrease unnecessary consumption of the river water on a domestic level, we propose the following. The people living in the Colorado River watershed, and more generally all the people in North America will need to shift to more conservation-minded practices. The proposed methods consist of increasing the efficiency of plumbing systems, phasing out gradually all plumbing devices, especially showers, taps and toilet which are not water conservative, and creating and influencing behavioral change amongst the populace.

The plan suggests that every household performs a thorough plumbing check every year to ensure that there are no leaks.

Also all broken faucets, showerheads and toilets that need replacement would only be replaced by efficiency plumbing devices.

A state like California for example, is allocated 4.4 million acre feet of the Colorado River according to the Law of the River (Colorado River Compact, 1922), but ends up using up to 5 million acre feet every year. Research done by the Pacific Institute indicates that, just by shifting to high efficiency toilets (HETs) that use approximately 1.6~3 gallons per flush, using low flow shower heads, fixing leaking faucets and leaks, and using efficient dishwashers and washing machines, they have the potential to save approximately 893,000 acre feet of water every year, hence live within their allocation and even have some to store in their reservoirs.(Pacific Institute, 2004, pp.7).

Our solution would require an ultimate shift, enforced by the government and firms that make plumbing devices, to stop production of plumbing devices that are not efficient in terms of saving water. This change would lead to phasing out completely of inefficient plumbing devices within the next forty years.

Table 1 shows how much water we use on average and how much we would save if we implemented this: (Vickers, 2001)

By installing more efficient water fixtures and regularly checking for leaks, households can reduce daily per capita water use by about 35% to about 45.2 gallons per day. Table 2 presents a breakdown for households using conservation measures, while Table 3 shows projected water savings.

UseUse Amount
(Gallons per capita)
Percentage of
total daily use (%)
Clothes washers15.021.7
Other domestic uses1.62.2
UseUse Amount
(Gallons per capita)
Percentage of
total daily use (%)
Clothes washers10.022.1
Other domestic uses1.63.4
Ave. daily consumption
(gallons per capita)
Ave. daily consumption
(gallons per capita)
Savings per year
(gallons per capita
per year)
(enough for 192 days,
more than half a year)

According to the US forest Service approximately 33 million people (US Forest Service, 2008) rely on water whose source is in the Rockies. If these people all conserved 8796.5 gallons per year we would be saving 2.98* 1011 gallons, which is approximately 890,000 acre feet in that region alone.

In addition to that, the very same research done by various scientists of the Pacific Institute show that (Pacific Institute, 2004, pp.7), on average, residents of California use between 983,000 and 1,900,000 acre feet per year for outdoor residential purposes. The Pacific Institute stated that California alone had the potential to save more than 900,000 acre feet a year (Pacific Institute, 2004, pp.70).*

The plans to cut down outdoor water usage are indeed very simple, but have proven to be rather effective. These methods are:

Mulching: This is the adding of dry leaves, grass or compost over the soil cover, ensuring that less water evaporates from the ground. Installing wind breaks and fences: This is the putting up of ‘obstacles' that serve to reduce the amount of wind that directly blows over a surface. This would also reduce the amount of evaporation, as the amount of evaporation that occurs is directly proportional to the wind blowing over the surface and the area exposed. Planting trees and shrubs in a line to create some sort of boundary is an example of this practice. Watering early in the morning: This would ensure that more water is absorbed by the plants before the heat associated with middle hours of the day causes extensive evaporation (US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2008).

It is also recommended (by the US Department of Agriculture) that people begin to shift to xeriphytic plants, which are better adapted towards dealing with less water. Dormant Bermuda grass is wonderful for private lawns, as it can survive if watered only once a month (it can definitely be watered more often, but it can survive on that bare minimum).(Water Use It Wisely, 2008) Also it would be very helpful if people would aerate the lawns. Punching small holes in the lawns would be done about six inches apart so water will reach the roots rather than run off the surface and go to waste. As a result, owners of lawns would need to water their plants less and for shorter periods (Water Use It Wisely, 2008).

Here is a list of more species that would require less water than the average garden plants, and the region in which they are found in:

North West

  • Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
  • Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
  • Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)
  • Oregon white oak (Quercus garryanna)

South West

  • Four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens)
  • Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)
  • Penstemon (Penstemon spp.)
  • Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis)

North Central

  • Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)
  • Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  • Bluegrama (Bouteloua gracilis)
  • Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
  • Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)

South Central

  • Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)
  • Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  • Bluegrama (Bouteloua gracilis)
  • Tall blasing star (Liatris aspera)
  • Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpus)
  • Aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica)

North East

  • Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
  • Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Blazing star (Liatris spicata)
  • Pitch pine (Pinus rigida)
  • Beach plum (Prunus serotina)

South East

  • Tall blazing star (Liatris aspera)
  • Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)
  • Sand Live oak (Quercus germinata)
  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
  • Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)

(US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service)

Much water is lost as a result of evaporation. This is especially apparent in regions where there is plenty of heat, little humidity, and or a lot of wind. Some of these happen to be true of regions found in the Lower River Basin as they have generally very hot and or dry conditions. As a measure to conserve water that would other wise be lost as a result of evaporation we would therefore recommend that every outdoor swimming pool be fitted with a pool cover while not in use as pools lose up to 20000 gallons a year owing to evaporation only (that is for a an average pool size of 400sqft ).(DiFranseco, 2008).

We also recommend the establishment of neighborhood community policing organizations(in neighborhood that have lawns and pools) that would be formed to check on whether people are adhering to water conservation policies in terms of lawn management as the water problem is clearly a communal problem and every person needs to own the problem, and become part of the solution. We recommend that laws be passed to enable and empower these organizations to fine offenders and even have support from the judicial and law enforcing arms of the system in the case that people fail to comply.

Improving the Law of the River

Keeping in mind the state of the Colorado River, it is clear that something must be done to improve the law and management of the river. The first thing aspect of the solution includes the formation of an overarching Colorado River Committee, which would require the cooperation of agencies on the federal, state, and international levels. This committee would meet on a regular basis, or in the event of water issues requiring immediate attention. It would be composed of professionals well versed in the area of water conservation (who would retain their jobs), as well as representatives from individual states and major sectors dependant on the river. This group would also include Mexican water experts and government officials, as well as representatives from dependant organizations. The committee would meet to discuss issues pertaining to allocation, conservation, ecological sustainability, and any pertinent issues. The goal of this group would be to develop an environmentally friendly, integrated approach to river management that would also be sustainable - effective in the long-term. In order to achieve this, the group must view the Colorado River basin as a whole when evaluating the sustainability of the river itself. The Commission will be concerned with evaluating the environmental state of the river, based on the state of the species living in the various regions of the basin, as well as the amount of water being utilized by humans, and also the recreational needs of the river users - water quality included. In order to alleviate some of these concerns, our immediate actions upon establishing an overarching system of river management include the following.

In order to ensure that the river is being properly allocated, the committee must first review the current allocations of the river keeping in mind the climate and population projections of the future. This should be done as soon as possible, and at a regular interval, preferably every 10 years, or in extreme circumstances.

Instream Flow and Storage

It is imperative that more instream flow is created, in order to reduce the salinity of the river, and also to improve the health of the ecosystem. This will be achieved most immediately through the reallocation of water saved by the agricultural changes in our solutions to instream flow. In short, the available water after the proposed agricultural changes will serve two purposes: natural flow and ecosystem improvement, and groundwater recharge. Returning available water to the natural flow of the river will improve the quality of the water in a variety of ways. It will reduce the salinity of the river, since less water withdrawals will be made by agriculture; the amount of dissolved solids in the water will be less concentrated. It will also aid in the restoration of the environment surrounding the river. In the state of Arizona alone, just improving irrigation efficiency and shifting crops to less water intensive types would result in a total savings of over 800,000 acre feet. Based on this, a total savings of 2 million acre feet is possible in the lower basin, the region with the most distinct salinity issue and water scarcity. Agricultural practices concerning the river such as these must be monitored by an organization with the ability to evaluate the health of the entire river. Additionally, the newly available water can be utilized to recharge aquifers through a process similar to Tucson, Arizona's Clearwater Project, or put into reservoirs.

In order to store the conserved water, it can be suggested that a law be formulated, on a county level, requiring that they designate a portion of their river allocation toward either groundwater recharge, or storage in a nearby reservoir. These plans are highly specific to particular regions, and would be best designed by local officials in conjunction with water conservation experts. This plan would be gradually implemented, thus lessening the economic implication, which is a price that must be endured as this is an urgent need.


The solutions recommended would be valuable in the short and long term, not only to the residents of Colorado River Basin, but also to all the inhabitants of North America.