It’s Not Too Late to Change the Course of the Vanishing Colorado River

In 1922 the environmentalist Aldo Leopold canoed through a lush, verdant delta full of green lagoons, darting fish and squawking waterfowl. But Leopold’s “milk and honey wilderness,” where the Colorado River empties into Mexico’s Gulf of California, ceased to exist decades ago. In its stead, a cracked, barren mudflat stretches for miles.

“If we choose, we can have healthy rivers alongside healthy economies,” Postel said. “We don’t have to be running our rivers dry.”

“This amazing place does not exist anymore,” said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and freshwater fellow of the National Geographic Society. “A lot was lost.”

Ten major dams—from the Hoover Dam, erected in 1936, to the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966—block the flow of the Colorado River. Countless towns and industries siphon water from the river and its many tributaries as it meanders to the sea. Today the Colorado River joins the likes of the Indus, the Rio Grande, the Nile and other major world rivers that are so over-tapped they no longer reach the sea. “This is one of America’s iconic rivers,” Postel said. “I don’t think this country would be the one we know today without the Colorado.”

It does not have to be this way, however. A restoration and outreach effort called Change the Course seeks to return the river to the sea. To pursue this goal, the National Geographic Society, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and Participant Media teamed up and pooled their expertise—science, social media, storytelling and policy—to change the fate of the once-mighty Colorado River.

A key to the campaign’s potential success rests in a nearly 100-year-old piece of legislation. Back in the 1920s, the Colorado River’s water was legally divided amongst farmers, landowners and rangers along its course. The government allocated a specific amount of water to each shareholder, and owners have maintained their rights throughout the decades.

The clincher, however, is this: If a stakeholder does not divert his allocated amount of water from the river each year, he may lose those rights. This means that a farmer who needs 20,000 gallons to raise his crops may be sucking up 60,000 gallons instead. Recognizing the lunacy of this situation, courts recently agreed that farm owners could sell their excess gallons and river rights rather than let wasted water stagnate.

Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit based in Portland, seized upon this idea. The foundation created water restoration certificates that represent payments to farmers and buy back of the river’s waters. Companies interested in greening their reputation and offsetting their environmental impacts can purchase the certificates, which then ensure that a certified amount of water stays in the river.

“We use market-based ideas to involve the private sector in solving environmental challenges,” said Todd Reeve, Bonneville’s chief executive officer. “The certificates can act as currency and a reporting mechanism to allow any business to restore to the planet the amount equal to the resources used in its operations.”

So far, Silk, the soy, almond and coconut milk company, has joined the campaign, and Reeve hopes that a myriad of others seeking to bolster their sustainability profiles join in the weeks and months to come. But it isn’t just companies that Change the Course hopes to reach. Importantly, it’s young people too.

Though 70 to 90 percent of the Colorado’s water is used for agriculture and industry, tackling the problem holistically means addressing the remaining consumption by households throughout the West. Following the theme of its film Last Call at the Oasis, Participant Media is launching the social action portion of the campaign, seeking to target 100,000 millennials as its core audience. After watching a minute-and-a-half informative video on the project and on individuals’ water footprints, people can sign a pledge to minimize their own water footprints. Joining the campaign automatically ensures that 1,000 gallons of water return to the Colorado River, which corporate sponsors such as Silk support by purchasing water restoration certificates.

People who sign up for the campaign receive sporadic texts and emails to keep them updated on the Colorado’s progress and also to educate them about their personal water footprints and ways to minimize their impacts.

For example, a participant may get a text informing her that 634 gallons of water are used to produce a single hamburger; that the person she loves most in the world is composed of 78 percent water; that only one percent of all water on Earth is not saltwater or frozen in ice; or that her T-shirt or winter salad comes from water-gobbling crops supported by the Colorado River.

Additionally, Participant Media plans to host an alternative summer break, inviting about a dozen young people to join them at restoration sites along the Colorado in the hopes that they will blog about their experiences and spread the word about the campaign to their universities. A series of short videos called Life Without Water is Awkward will also soon be released to raise attention for the campaign.

If things go well, the Colorado River could reach the sea in five to seven years, thanks to the efforts of Change the Course and numerous other nonprofit groups working to the same goal. “I think this has the potential to be one of the most significant environmental achievements of the last 50 to 100 years,” Reeve said.

Postel is confident that just adding water would do wonders for restoring wetland and riparian ecosystems, as demonstrated in a recent accidental natural experiment. Arizona, finding some of its water too salty to use, began piping the liquid waste over the border to Mexico’s muddy former delta. Soon, 14,000 acres of vegetation popped up around that life-giving source. “This is an example of how resilient the ecosystem is,” Postel said. “If you just add water, it will bounce back.” 

“If we choose, we can have healthy rivers alongside healthy economies,” Postel said. “We don’t have to be running our rivers dry.”

For the Colorado and its tributaries, these fixes could mean changing where and how irrigation water is diverted so as to keep more water in natural rivers channels, or making use of legislative opportunities to buy or lease, as Change the Course with Conservation Partners last summer for the Yampa River near Steamboat, Colorado.

Pending the campaign’s success, Change the Course is already imagining applying its formula to other rivers in need around the world, such as the Ganges or the Yangtze. “We hope this community grows over time, and that Change the Course can help not only the 30 million people dependent on the Colorado River, but other people living in endangered freshwater systems around the world,” said Chad Boettcher, Participant Media’s executive vice president of social action and advocacy. 

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Colorado—The Disappearing River

• Drought Crisis 2012: It Isn’t Looking Good for Our Food Supply

• Floating Ideas for Saving the Ever-Diminishing Colorado River

Rachel Nuwer is a science journalist writing for venues such as the New York Times, Scientific American, Smithsonian and Audubon Magazine, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. | @rachelnuwer |