Colorado River Polluted

What do you think of when you hear the words colorado river’. Most people’s thoughts go to stunning views of rushing waters, kayaking on the moving water or perhaps the fact that moving water can produce energy.

Unfortunately the colorado river picture is much more somber.

 Many colorado Rivers have fallen prey to  human activities that end up affecting nature negatively. It’s safe to say the rivers in Colorado are some of the worst hit in the world.

The Institute’s goal is to educate people but also lobby politicians to ensure long term positive results. The reality is: If someone doesn’t act now the state of Colorado soon won’t have much to offer in terms of rivers.

Action is needed now to save our many colorado rivers.

colorado river

The Ideal Ecosystem to Make Rivers Flourish

Firstly, you need to understand what a river needs to be and stay healthy. You may think the answer simply lies in keeping water clean. But what if there’s no water at all?

Most people don’t understand the necessity of flowing water. They also don’t realize that manmade features, misuse and modern industries draw water away from rivers. This affects how the water flows but also how much water there is and the levels of the river throughout the year.

Flow and water levels are important factors in supporting a healthy ecosystem in and around a river. One example is that the levels determine how groundwater is supplemented.

Appropriate water levels aren’t simply beneficial to the river itself, but also animals, plants and people using & enjoying the areas close to the river. Therefore, it’s in everyone’s interest to manage this going forward.

So, what is standing in the way?

colorado river
colorado river

The Threats to Rivers Today

It’s unfortunate that so much of what people initiate needs to be curbed a few decades down the line. Wouldn’t it be simpler to envision all the possible outcomes and stop some disasters from happening?

Hopefully, at some stage in humanity’s future we’ll learn from our mistakes. For now, we constantly have to solve the problems we create ourselves.

Pollution Needs to Stop

You’ve probably heard countless talks about this topic. The danger of pollution is a popular topic in schools, government and even general society.

Therefore, you’re probably used to images of plastic, paper and other waste drifting on rivers and other water bodies. It’s a common problem but perhaps society has become desensitized towards this problem

General Pollution

Let’s be honest: How many people put effort into curbing waste to limit their communities’ effect on the environment? It can be as simple as:
Recycling programs
Preventing unwanted objects from washing into streams
Using skip rental services to ensure proper disposal of building and other waste

The list is endless in terms of what can be done. Do we do any of this?

colorado river
colorado river

The Problem Lies Much Deeper

But let’s move further than simply dealing with household waste. A huge problem with today’s pollution is that most people don’t realize how our way of life has affected rivers in a more complicated way. This can’t be fixed as easily as removing plastic bottles from the surface.

Three major problems

The bacteria in the water: High levels of bacteria make the water dangerous to use. It can cause diseases in humans, but of course this affects animals in and around the water too. The cause can be human waste being pumped into the river. This can be prevented if governments and companies maintain septic tanks and ensure there are no leakages. However, over population of animals can also be a problem. The cause can be as innocent as too many geese in the area or a farmer having too many cattle near the water.
Too much sediment: Here’s an example of too much of a good thing becoming a problem. Sediment is a natural feature in any river. However, when these levels increase a lot they can block sunlight from reaching plants, prevent eggs from hatching by changing the gravel beds or affect marine life when washed out to sea. Some sources of sediment are natural, but humanity causes an increase of these levels. This is thanks to construction projects, not looking after farmland and removing natural vegetation that should keep soil in place.
High nutrient levels: These nutrients can come from water treatment plants, fertilizers, and large scale livestock operations. Their presence leads to algae growing much faster than the natural norm. As the algae covers the water’s surface it affects oxygen levels and toxins can build up.

You can see many of these problems can be managed better if enough people support the cause. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only problem environmentalist have to counter at the moment.

How Water Mismanagement is Killing Rivers

You may think the problem only lies with what humanity puts into the water. Unfortunately, a large challenge lies with what we decided to do with WITH the water as well.

As stated the flow of a river is a vital part of keeping it and its surrounding ecosystem healthy. What do modern industries and governments do?
They create dams
They divert water from rivers instead of letting it flow naturally
Society’s habits created climate change which affects water levels across the globe, leading to both flooding and droughts

It’s easy to understand: If water doesn’t stay and flow in rivers, it can lead to:
Decline in fish numbers
Wildlife using the rivers will be affected
Invasive species often flourish and spread
Fewer wetlands can be sustained which affects ecosystems

It may seem that this is only about saving nature. However, do you realize that lower water levels will affect tourism? The industries that divert and use the water are affecting other important industries.

Here’s a practical example: What will the state do without the Colorado River’s $26.4 billion recreational economy? If visitors can’t enjoy rowing or fishing in rivers anymore, they’ll stop coming.

So, it’s imperative to see change for the benefit of rivers, the environment in general, but also for people. Will we take up the challenge?

 

The Situation in Colorado Rivers

We can’t fix all the problems at once, but one area in dire need of assistance is the river area in Western Colorado. These waters are subjected to many of the problems mentioned above, but they also have unique challenges.

A Few Important Facts

To understand the massive impact this river and its ecosystem have on the environment, but also on communities, industry & the economy, let’s look at important facts:
The Colorado River is important to both the US and Mexico as it runs through nine different states in these countries.
It’s 1 450 miles long.
It originates in the Rocky Mountains, mostly from snowmelt.
11 US national parks include parts of this river.
It has 25 tributaries.
In its original state, each year it sent +/- 16.3 million acre feet of water into the Gulf of California in the Pacific Ocean.
36 million – 40 million people are dependent on the river for their needs. This includes agricultural, domestic and industrial applications. Recreation alone employs 250 000 people.
Over 1600 plant species can be found in the Colorado River watershed.
You’ll find 49 different fish species here.
It’s a popular tourist attraction for white water rafting.

Problems in the Past Developing the Infrastructure

The history of modern civilization and its relationship with the river is filled with examples of abusing this resource. To benefit industry changes to the river were initiated as early as 1910 when the US government started building dams. This continued over the next few decades and resulted in massive constructions such as:
Hoover Dam
Glen Canyon Dam
Today it has around 30 dams as part of its infrastructure.

As stated above these changes and obstacles affected the condition of the river over time. These projects make the Colorado River one of the world’s most controlled rivers in the world. Of course, this isn’t a good thing.

Because of the water consumption the last 100 miles of the river has been mostly dry. Since the 1960s it rarely reaches the sea anymore. Its peak flow rate has dropped from 100 000 cubic feet per second to 35 000 cubic feet per second.

It’s unfortunate that the negative impact wasn’t contained. Many people fought against these projects but only some were stopped thanks to citizen opposition. Many went ahead as planned and some huge alterations were even made based on inaccurate data.

One example is the 1922 Colorado River Compact. A large part of the river’s flow was diverted to the Upper and Lower Basin. However, the figures used for planning came from years with unnaturally high water levels. When levels returned to normal later on, the changes had lasting negative effects on the water body.

This along with multiple other decisions, agreements and acts form what’s known as the Law of the River & this is still in place today.

Disaster Strikes

The river also had to deal with the impact of huge disasters as recent as 2015. A faulty plug in the Gold King Mine’s pond led to 3 million gallons of mine waste entering the river system. This waste included:
Cadmium
Lead
Arsenic
Beryllium
Zinc
Iron
Copper

People were warned not to use water from their wells and the Navajo people’s crops were badly affected. These are only some of the problems resulting from the spill.

This disaster left the river water orange for a long time. However, even if it returns to looking the same as it did before, the impact of these elements on the water, the vegetation and even people’s use of the river won’t be known for years to come.

 

What’s the Story Today?

Those concerned about the river faces a huge challenge of educating people on what’s necessary to secure the river’s future.
It’s important to change the Law of the River so the use of the river can align with what we know in the 21st century. The 19th century system obviously doesn’t work anymore.
A new plan is necessary that will sustain the economy without destroying the river.
Government, communities, the media and city councils need to realize what will happen if there are no changes. With the projected population growth, climate change and developments in the energy industry the Colorado River won’t simply suffer but could die entirely.
The same focus there is on providing homes with water, should be applied to ensuring rivers have water too.
It’s astounding to realize that many people dependent on the river—such as the agricultural industry—aren’t aware how big the problem is. If we continue abusing the river as we currently do 70% of Colorado agriculture could be dried up as we near 2050. Long term planning must be implemented now.
It’s vital that both the public and government get educated & involved. Many decisions about how the river is used are made without the public’s knowledge. Some may care about the river but not be aware of changes and projects initiated by corporate or government institutions.
People may bask in the luxury of having clean, running water taken straight to their homes, but they’re not aware of the effect these infrastructures have on rivers themselves.

 

Educating Society

While much of these challenges are related to educating society and ensuring that government will make changes, there are natural challenges too. The 21st century saw a massive drought in the area. This, along with lower than average snowpack as late as 2018 leads to some frightening projections:
52% shortage declaration in 2020
64% shortage in 2021
68% in 2022

Will changes be made in time?

 

What Role Does Climate Change Play?

Of course, we all know about the destructive force of climate change. And yes, it affects the rivers in Western Colorado as well. This isn’t something the local government or communities can control. However, it must be taken into consideration in plans and predictions about the future.

This factor alone can reduce the river’s flow by another 10% or even as much as 30% by the year 2050. It simply depends on how society responds to the calls of minimizing the activities that exacerbate climate change.

This adds more challenges to the rather bleak scenario, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no solution.

What Can Be Done?

In spite of all these harsh facts, all hope is not lost…yet.

Taking action soon is important as this spectacular resource won’t be able to cope with the abuse forever. Of course, this isn’t a problem solved by one role player. Everyone needs to join forces.

 

The Role of Government and Local Councils

While many modern inventions led to abusing water resources, it’s also new technology that can help save them.

There are many projects that can have such profound impact that the water demand can be met and even exceeded by 2060 & beyond. For this to happen it’s vital for government and councils to start, improve & plan projects like these:
Rethink how to re-use municipal water
Agricultural efficiency should be improved upon
Water banking
Renewable energy should become a priority, using:
Wind
Solar energy
Geothermal projects
Thermoelectric approaches
A lot of water can be saved simply by attending to the condition of the river. When invasive plants are removed it will affect water levels. Less water will be used by unwanted plants.
Something as simple as removing dust from snow can limit evaporation.
Technology led to desalinization plants and these should be optimized. They can target inland groundwater so less water needs to be drawn from the river.

Advanced technology also makes it possible to make more accurate calculations. The plans we initiate today will hopefully have a less detrimental impact than some of the projects in the past.

The Role of Agriculture

The river plays such an integral part in agriculture; Unfortunately many leaders in this industry don’t initiate plans to ensure long term preservation of the water resource. This industry’s plans should include:
Looking after farm land with more care. Land that isn’t used should still be cared for in order to limit the amount of sediment that reaches the river.
Farmers should limit the number of animals allowed near the water as their waste can affect the water quality. This will of course affect the water’s ecosystem.
Along with the public the agricultural leaders should keep themselves informed about what the government and other industries plan for the river. Any projects that could further divert water away or pollute the river should be objected to.

Putting in this effort now can result in better quality water and a healthier river ecosystem in the long run.

The Role Anyone Can Play

Accountability
History shows how the power of the multitudes has been put to good use. It was public opinion and pressure from communities that stopped more than one project that could have ruined the river even more.

This shows the value of keeping the public informed about:
The condition of the river they love
Government and corporation’s plans for using the river
The public should also seek out information and not accept the news will be made public knowledge.

A simple example is how the US Forest Service once denied a permit after 230 000 people decided to object by simply commenting. That’s the power of the people and also the power communities have thanks to:
Modern technology through which we can share information
Communication systems such as the internet that makes it easier to object and make your opinion known

The general population should put pressure on their local leadership to pursue projects that clean, benefit and restore the river.

In people’s private capacity they should always be aware of how their residential waste is handled. People are often uneducated in this regard. They can limit their own waste but also hold local councils accountable for how waste is treated and what exactly gets deposited back into the river.

Participation

However, it’s not fair to simply blame the government for all the problems mentioned in this article. Society as a whole loves the benefits of modern industry and water infrastructures & most people use it daily.

Those who truly care about the river face a challenge: How much are you willing to do to rectify the problem?

Many projects already exist that focus on fixing this problem; the public should seek them out and take part. Cleaning the water is already a small—but powerful—victory and that makes projects such as the Colorado Riverfest’s river clean up projects very important

Volunteers

These are yearly events and volunteers deal with all types of pollution & problems:
Removing metal from the water
Taking out old tires (both vehicle and tractor tires, which proves the impact of industries & agriculture on the water)
Finding and removing household and commercial items such as:
Statues
Bicycles
Shopping carts
Steel cables
Of course, there is a large amount of glass, plastic and other general litter coming from private homes too

In 2018 one such clean up resulted in as much as 15 cubic yards of trash drawn from the Grand Valley section of the river. These can then be placed in skips and taken to more appropriate waste disposal sites.

Removing this waste is as important as getting the rivers flowing normally again. It won’t ever be as before, but a few adjustments can make a huge difference.

colorado river

Conclusion

Certain parts of this glorious river are still spectacular. The view can be so breathtaking that you wouldn’t think there’s a problem at the moment. But what does a thorough investigation tell you? Comparing images of today with ones of a few decades ago quickly proves disaster is imminent. Unless we act. Future generations should still enjoy the benefit of a clean river in decades to come. What will you do?