The Colorado River may have cut the Grand Canyon, but for much of its course the river is no longer so mighty. Most of the time, the Colorado no longer even reaches the sea.
The moisture the Colorado River brings to an arid part of the United States and a piece of northern Mexico has sustained generations of people and many generations of wildlife. But that water has long been over allocated, sucked dry by the 30 million people who rely on it for drinking and irrigation.
Once free, the Colorado now has many dams along its 1,450 miles (2,333 kilometers). Its life-giving water is divided up among seven U.S. states and Mexico according to a series of treaties and agreements. But precious little flows remain to support the rich ecosystems that once flourished along the river’s path.
As Wade Davis recently reported, the Colorado once supported a vast, sprawling delta where it met the Gulf of California:
As recently as the last years of the nineteenth century the wetlands produced enough wood to fuel the steamships and paddle wheelers that supplied all of the army outposts, mining camps, and ragtag settlements of the lower Colorado. Today the gallery forests of cottonwood and willow are a shadow of memory, displaced by thickets of tamarisk and arrowweed, invasive species capable of surviving in soils poisoned by salt.
Davis added that, as a result of the loss of rich sediments that were formerly deposited into the Gulf, “Marine productivity has fallen by as much as 95 percent, and all that remains to recall the bounty of the estuary are the countless millions of shells that form the islands and beaches on the shore.”
Davis and Sandra Postel, National Geographic’s Freshwater Fellow, have also documented the toll the drying of the delta has taken on the region’s indigenous people, the Cucapá (also spelled Cocopah), the “People of the River.”
Historical accounts suggest that four hundred years ago as many as 5,000 Cucapá were living in the delta. Today, perhaps 300 remain. Theirs is a culture at risk of extinction – and the primary reason is the colossal 20th-century grab of the waters of the Colorado River.
We Are All to Blame
It’s easy to blame farmers and ranchers along the Colorado who draw from its channel to water their crops or quench the thirst of their cows. Or glittering cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which pipe in water from long distances to fill pools and water lawns.
These and others are the immediate consumers of water from the Colorado, but the truth is that we are all at least partially responsible. Many of us consume products that come from the region, whether in the form of cornmeal, hamburgers, or electronics. Many of us visit the region to ski, play golf, hike, or shop.
We live in an increasingly connected world, in which we ship “virtual water” in the form of products and even services around the world. We can’t simply fix the Colorado by piping water from another place, as Brian Richter recently pointed out. We need more holistic solutions. And fact is, many of us use more water than we need, perhaps more than could be called our “fair share.”
In the U.S., we use twice as much water per person as the global average.
We Can All “Change the Course”
We all can do better. Take our water calculator to see how much water you use everyday, hidden in your diet and wardrobe, and to make your transportation possible.
Or, get right down to business, and pledge to start saving a little water in your own life. Make a small change today, and you may find yourself quickly forming a more water-efficient habit. Eat one less serving of meat (it takes 634 gallons of water to make one burger), skip one cup of coffee (37 gallons), or carpool (it takes 13 gallons of water to make one gallon of gas).
And yes, please do turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth. Every drop counts.
Under the leadership of Sandra Postel, National Geographic’s freshwater team has joined forces with the Bonneville Environment Foundation and Participant Media (the creative folks behind An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, and Last Call at the Oasis), to bring ordinary people together to magnify collective efforts, in a program called Change the Course (view the official press release). On the campaign website, people can enter their email address or phone number to receive regular updates on restoration work in the Colorado River Basin.
How It Works
For each person who signs up to Change the Course (and hopefully pledges to start saving water in their own life), corporate partners will donate funds to support restorative work along the Colorado. The team will work with local conservation groups on the ground, on projects designed to achieve high ecological value.
Change the Course’s Charter Sponsor is Silk. Some of the projects under consideration include helping farmers in the basin increase their irrigation efficiency, and replacing invasive, water-sucking plants with native species.
Already, Change the Course helped fund restoration of water to the parched Yampa River in Colorado, near Steamboat Springs. In an innovative partnership, such water users as farmers, ranchers, and water districts temporarily leased water rights to the Colorado Water Trust.
Going forward, Change the Course will restore 1,000 gallons of water to the Colorado Basin for each pledge made. The more people who sign up, the easier it will be to attract more sponsors—companies who likely want to “balance” their own water budgets by helping return flows to nature. It can be a way to offset consumption in various stages of their businesses.
The Change the Course team is piloting this innovative restoration approach in the Colorado River Basin, with hopes of moving it out to other river basins around the nation or the globe.
As the slogan goes, it’s never too late to Change the Course.
Special thanks to Silk, the Charter Sponsor for Change the Course. Additional funding generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.