Climate change is shrinking the Colorado River
Lake Powell, photographed April 12, 2017. The white ‘bathtub ring’ at the cliff base indicates how much higher the lake reached at its peak, nearly 100 feet above the current level.
The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead on the Arizona/Nevada border and Lake Powell on the Arizona/Utah border, were brim full in the year 2000. Four short years later, they had lost enough water to supply California its legally apportioned share of Colorado River water for more than five years. Now, 17 years later, they still have not recovered.
This ongoing, unprecedented event threatens water supplies to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and some of the most productive agricultural lands anywhere in the world. It is critical to understand what is causing it so water managers can make realistic water use and conservation plans.
While overuse has played a part, a significant portion of the reservoir decline is due to an ongoing drought, which started in 2000 and has led to substantial reductions in river flows. Most droughts are caused by a lack of precipitation. However, research shows that about one-third of the flow decline was likely due to higher temperatures in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, which result from climate change.
This distinction matters because climate change is causing long-term warming that will continue for centuries.
In the study, researchers found the period from 2000 to 2014 is the worst 15-year drought since 1906, when official flow measurements began. During these years, annual flows in the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below the 20th-century average.
During a similar 15-year drought in the 1950s, annual flows declined by 18 percent. But during that drought, the region was drier: rainfall decreased by about 6 percent, compared to 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2014. Why, then, is the recent drought the most severe on record?
The answer is simple: higher temperatures. From 2000 to 2014, temperatures in the Upper Basin, where most of the runoff that feeds the Colorado River is produced, were 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the 20th-century average. This is why we call this event a hot drought. High temperatures continued in 2015 and 2016, as did less-than-average flows. Runoff in 2017 is expected to be above average, but this will only modestly improve reservoir volumes.
High temperatures affect river levels in many ways. Coupled with earlier snow melt, they lead to a longer growing season, which means more days of water demand from plants. Higher temperatures also increase daily plant water use and evaporation from water bodies and soils. In sum, as it warms, the atmosphere draws more water, up to 4 percent more per degree Fahrenheit from all available sources, so less water flows into the river. These findings also apply to all semi-arid rivers in the American Southwest, especially the Rio Grande.