The Colorado River starts in Rocky Mountain National Park along the jagged edge of the Continental Divide at over 12,000 feet of elevation. The river cascades, flows, tumbles, and rumbles through 1,450 miles of mountains, canyons, high plains, and low deserts on its journey to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. The entire Southwest United States completely depends on the Colorado River and its tributaries - the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, and California use the river's water for farming, drinking, growing lawns, and generating hydroelectric power.
Thirty million people in the Southwest use the Colorado River's water for their material sustenance; millions more use the river itself for recreation and spiritual enjoyment. The river quenches our thirst, feeds our souls, enlivens our senses. And we are not the only inhabitants using this river - its waters, canyons, and habitats provide a vibrant but deeply threatened ecosystem for untold numbers of plant and animal species. All of these competing demands make the Colorado River one of the most contested and controlled rivers on Earth. Over the last decade, humans have drained all of the river's water - all 5 trillion gallons - before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. The Colorado River is in very bad shape and deeply threatened.
Agriculture provides extraodinary benefits for humans and consumes the vast majority of the Colorado River's water. Diversions from the River for agriculture total about 78% of the River's entire flow, almost 4 trillion gallons. Water is pumped in tunnels through the Continental Divide in Colorado to the vast irrigated plains of northern Colorado where it grows alfalfa and corn, much of which is used to feed cattle. Conversely, many times more water is pumped to the desert landscapes of southern California where it is used to grow vegetable crops that are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants across the United States.
Using this water for agriculture creates vast amounts of food, but also creates many ecological and public health problems. The rivers water is used and reused so many times, that by the time it reaches the U.S./Mexico border, it contains high levels of salt, selenium, and other minerals that have leached out from the soils of agricultural lands across the basin. At the very southern tip of the basin, farmers have installed miles of underground drains to help leach away harmful minerals. Because of this water pollution, and because of the increasing demand for water, farmers throughout the Southwest are being encouraged to practice water conservation and efficiency, which could ultimately be the biggest source of new water available for cities.
The Colorado River doesn't just flow through the Southwest ecosystems, it creates them. Water flowing in the Colorado River provides habitat for moose, trout, and river otters in Rocky Mountain National Park. As the river flows downstream and into the arid Southwest, it is one of the only sources of water within hundreds of miles for wildlife of all types. Four federally listed endangered species of fish still cling to existence in the river; its water and wetlands provide habitat for migrating birds from the top of the basin all the way to the bottom; and bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, bear, and mountain lion prowl its banks all along its 1,450 mile journey.
When dams, reservoirs, and diversions drain the river, they also drain and destroy the ecosystem in and around the river. Fish are endangered due to dam construction. Wetlands are threatened because the river no longer fills them. Wildlife is threatened because their habitat and food source no longer exists. Human use of the water competes with the necessary role that the water plays in the life of fish and wildlife in the entire ecosystem. When we take water out of the river, we take it from other life forms that were using it - and that life form is sometimes destroyed because of us. Protecting the Colorado River will help protect the Southwest United States and the biological diversity its wild ecosystems contain.
From Fort Collins, Colorado to Tucson, Arizona, the Colorado River provides water for human populations in the Southwest U.S. Overall, about 30 million people depend on the River and its tributaries for drinking, showering, washing clothes, watering lawns, and filling swimming pools. Businesses up and down the basin - including breweries, refineries, clothing makers, and thousands more - also depend on Colorado River water to make products and help create a profit. The River's water is tunneled thorugh mountain ranges, channeled through deserts, and piped hundreds of miles from its origin to meet human demands and spin turbines to generate power.
Water conservation is one of the biggest challenges facing cities in the Colorado River basin. Much of the River's water is used haphazardly - growing bluegrass in the desert; wasted inefficiently in indoor appliances; and evaporating as it lays in reservoirs, irrigation ditches, and swimming pools. On this last note, over 10% of the entire flow of the Colorado River - 500 billion gallons - evaporates in reservoirs. In fact, more Colorado River water evaporates from the two large reservoirs - Mead and Powell - than is used by the entire Front Range of Colorado. People use vast amounts of water, and people have corresponding opportunities to use that water more efficiently.
People don't just drink from the Colorado River, we also intensely use it for recreation. A multi-billion dollar industry exists around fishing, snow- and water-skiing, boating, hunting, birdwatching, swimming, and other activities in the Colorado River basin. Tens-of-millions of people recreate in and near the Colorado River. Dozens of national parks, national recreation areas, national forests, BLM lands, and state and local parks line the Colorado River and its tributaries, all of which are used intensely for recreation. The Colorado River is not just a refuge for wildlife, in many places it is a government-sponsored Wildlife Refuge.
Along with these extraordinary recreational opportunities comes a plethora of businesses to support them including real estate developments, resorts of numerous kinds, marinas, outfitters, fishing guiding businesses, and motels and restaurants. Just like how the river draws wildlife to its banks, it also draws millions of people and the economies they bring with them. Protecting the river and the water in it, protects these recreational opportunities and the economies that depend on it. Sometimes, of course, these economies compete with each other - river rafting is destroyed by reservoirs, but power boating is enhanced. In every case, the Colorado River and its water is an enormous recreational amenity for the public.
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