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

Rachel Nuwer via Take Part

In 1922 the conservationist 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 for long stretches of time. “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 on reversing more than 100 years of water use along the river. Since the mid-1800s, the Colorado River’s water was legally divided amongst farmers, landowners and ranchers along its course. Then, in the 1920s, seven states in the Colorado basin were allowed to divert additional water for cities, agriculture and industry. The result: more people have rights to divert water than the river has water to supply.

The clincher, however, is this: water rights holders have to “use it or lose it.” If a stakeholder does not divert his allocated amount of water from the river each year, he may lose those rights.

Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit based in Portland, seized upon this idea.

The foundation’s water restoration certificates (WRCs) are designed to give landowners a choice in how they use their water. WRCs are a voluntary, market-based program that provides economic incentives allowing water rights holders to devise new water management solutions to restore water to critically dewatered ecosystems. Simply put, the WRC program provides funding to support projects that allow landowners to change they way they use their water rights in order to restore vital water to dewatered rivers and streams.


“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 sending the liquid waste over the border to Mexico’s desiccated 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 river channels, or making use of opportunities to buy or lease water, as Change the Course successfully did with conservation partners last summer for the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs, 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 Yellow. “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.

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.