Monday, February 26, 2024

The Colorado River is in crisis


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Featured Photo by Noah McLane

Story by Noah McLane

The Colorado River, a vital source of water for 40 million people across seven states and 29 Native American tribes, is nearing its breaking point despite state and federal efforts to develop a plan to cut down on water usage. It is in the midst of a 23-year drought and the lakes it supplies are at their lowest water levels since their construction in the mid 20th century.  Lake Powell and Mead are the nation’s largest reservoirs and are at alarmingly low levels with lake Mead being less than a quarter full as of January 2023. 

The states that rely on the Colorado River include Arizona, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and nearly 30 native tribes. The tribe at the forefront of the water crisis is the Mojave, or Aha Makav as they are known traditionally, which means People of the River. 

The seven-state plan to drastically reduce water usage was set to be agreed on by Jan. 31 as per the Federal Reclamation Bureau’s order. Six of the seven states put forward a “consensus-based modeling alternative” but California, who uses the largest share of water from the river, was left out which means an agreement has yet to be reached. 

California uses the largest share of water from the river for a variety of reasons, but one in particular has proven to be a point of contention. Evaporation. California uses as much water as it does because over the course of the water’s journey from Lake Mead in Nevada to farms in southern California about 1.5 million acre-feet (how much water can cover an acre one foot deep) of water is lost due to evaporation. 

The proposal by the six states is to conserve those 1.5 million acre-feet of water that is lost via evaporation by subtracting that amount from California’s current usage allotment. The plan would result in large reductions of California’s allotted water usage, which the state’s water officials have strongly opposed. 

About 25 percent of the river is controlled by native tribes, including the Mojave, meaning these tribal nations will be a key player in the upcoming crisis. The river’s current rules are set to expire in 2026 and the role sovereign native nations will play cannot be understated. 

The Colorado River is a living spirit as far as the tribe is concerned. “It gives life,” said Nora McDowell, a Mohave elder, in an interview with the LA Times. “It really needs to be treated differently.” said McDowell. The role of the river in Native belief is ancient and reverent. The tribes see it as a source of life that must be protected. The Mojave fought hard for the water rights they have now during the Supreme Court hearing on water rights in 1989 and plan on protecting the river for generations. 

The Gila Indian Community has already shown their willingness to be a part of negotiations by accepting an offer to decrease water usage in exchange for compensation. Tribal Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis announced the news at Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s water council meeting last October. 

This issue will go beyond the current administration and will impact agriculture and hydroelectric power in the western United States. About 80 percent of the water drawn from the river and subsequent reservoirs is used for agriculture. Our current farming practices are unsustainable in the long term and new methods of cultivating food must be explored.

Noah McLane is an environmental and global politics reporter and a columnist for MTSU Sidelines.

To contact News Editor Kailee Shores and Assistant News Editor Alyssa Williams, email

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