Thirsty fields: How agriculture drains the Colorado River’s lifeline

As water becomes increasingly scarce, what choices lie ahead for the river's sustainability?


The architect of the Grand Canyon and a pivotal waterway of the American West, the Colorado River, serves as the backbone for both urban and rural expanses across several states. However, a recent scientific investigation unveils a stark reality: agriculture consumes more than half of this vital river’s annual flow, posing serious questions about sustainability and the future of water management in the region.

The study, aptly titled “New water accounting reveals why the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea,” published in the Communications Earth & Environment journal, brings to light the extensive use of the river’s waters for irrigating crops. With the American Southwest facing an unprecedented megadrought, the findings of this research underscore the urgent need for a reevaluation of water allocation practices.

The Colorado River and its tributaries quench the thirst of over 40 million people in key cities such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix. Beyond serving urban centers, the river irrigates more than 5 million acres of land, a testament to its role as an agricultural lifeline. Yet, this lifeline is being squeezed to its limits, with the river barely managing to sustain its ecological and economic responsibilities.

Brian Richter, the study’s lead author and a senior freshwater fellow at the World Wildlife Fund, stated, “We consume every single drop.”

The research meticulously accounted for the Colorado River basin’s water budget between 2000 and 2019, marking the first comprehensive analysis of its kind. The findings are alarming: 74% of the river’s direct human use is attributed to agriculture, accounting for 52% of the overall water consumption. Particularly striking is the revelation that grass hays like alfalfa, grown predominantly for cattle feed, constitute 46% of this consumption.

In the Upper Basin, the situation is even more pronounced, with irrigation claiming almost 90% of water usage. This disproportionate reliance on the Colorado River for agriculture underscores the pressing need for sustainable water management practices that balance agricultural demands with ecological preservation.

Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center, offers a measured perspective, acknowledging the challenges while remaining hopeful about adaptive capacities. “I think our ability to adapt is being tested and will continue to be. But I have some confidence that we will be able to,” she says.

The Colorado River’s plight is further complicated by the intricate web of negotiations over water rights. With current guidelines set to expire in 2026, the stage is set for intense discussions among the federal government, Native American Tribes, and the seven states that rely on the river’s bounty. The study’s timing is crucial, providing negotiators with data to inform these critical debates.

Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, emphasizes the broader implications of the study. “We all need to become far more water literate because there are some hard choices ahead,” she remarked.

In the face of mounting pressures, the path forward requires collaboration, ingenuity, and a collective commitment to sustainability. The fate of the Colorado River — and by extension, the millions who depend on it — hinges on our ability to make informed, equitable decisions that ensure its vitality for generations to come.


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