The Colorado River has long been described as the lifeblood of the American Southwest. Originating as a clear mountain stream on the Western Slope of Rocky Mountain National Park, the river gathers tributaries and strength as if flows through the basin, serving industries, cities and agriculture in seven states.
Those states, all signatories to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in the upper basin, Arizona, Nevada and California in the lower. Collectively, they comprise the hottest, driest region in the United States.
So what would happen should the Colorado River simply disappear for one year?
Realizing that sounds like a highly rhetorical question, economists at Arizona State University actually came up with the answers in a study published early this year. Forget about being up the creek without a paddle. This is more like having an armload of paddles and no creek.
The Colorado River system is tied to more than $1.4 trillion in economic activity annually, $871 billion in wages, and 16 million jobs. With no river, should it disappear, all that would be off the table, according to the analysis by economists at the L. William Seidman Research Institute at the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU.
One of the lead authors, economist Tim James, sounded a little exasperated as he acknowledged the river isn’t simply going to disappear. He’s also heard other blow-back: Humans are adaptable, there are other sources, there are senior water rights and junior water rights and the juniors would be on their own.
The study was sponsored by the business coalition Protect the Flows, which apparently drew some aspersions from agricultural interests.
“There are big caveats about what numbers actually mean,” James said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. “People say ‘we’d adapt,’ but the numbers are more like nuclear disaster type numbers. We can’t adapt to catastrophe.”
The numbers basically state total economic activity in the region that is dependent on the river.
The study showed state of Colorado agriculture using 6.13 million acre feet of water per year, with 31 percent of that total sourced from the Colorado River. Municipalities and industry used another 1.25 million acre feet, with 41 percent coming from the river.
The Colorado Gross State Product depending on the river was worth $188.95 billion or 59 percent, while state jobs dependent on the river were 2,147,141.
The study also offers numbers based on different percentages of river reduction, which, of course, is less far-fetched. Less so because analyses have shown that annual flows that averaged 15 million acre-feet during the years prior to 2000 averaged about 12 million during the drought-stressed years between 2000 and 2010, a decline of 20 percent.
Ground water pumping, other sources, conservation measures and other factors have so far staved off devastating consequences, but drought, warming and population growth are applying steady pressure.
“What is completely apparent is that people just don’t know enough about this whole thing, the wise of use water going forward,” James said. “Water is so cheap. It’s way, way, way too cheap. People don’t think about using huge quantities of water, even though we’re in a restrained area.”
The least drought resistant states, simply because of where they are located, are those of the lower basin, the study states. “If we were separate countries, I’m sure we’d be having wars over this,” James said.
As it is, he said, “You should start thinking about nature is trying to tell you something.”