Troubled Waters: Colorado River Crisis – Into the Wild West

In the sun-split desert of the Coachella Valley, life here is only possible with water from elsewhere. The water that grows our food, the water we drink and the water we exist around come from the special aquifers below the valley and the Colorado River. 

But the river is now in crisis, and as environmentalist and Colorado Riverkeeper John Weisheit puts it, we are on a train — headed for a cliff. To understand how we got here, News Channel 3 traveled to Colorado, tracking the river’s path and talking to a multitude of experts along the way.  

The Colorado River is an ancient body of water, nourishing Native American tribes since time immemorial. It was a fickle thing that forced tribes to move when the river shifted or dried up. But for all its mystery and formidable force, its headwaters at the La Poudre Pass Lake in Colorado start with a quiet tune, nearly imperceptible, before crescendoing downstream in its 1,450-mile journey. 

Morning anchor Angela Chen traveled with Assistant News Director Tim Kiley and Creative Services Director Kent Kay from the Coachella Valley to Colorado, following the path of the river in an old RV loaded with 500 pounds of equipment. They hiked the mountains and even rafted the rapids to understand the impact of the water on the Southwest. 

The Colorado River winds its way through several states, including California, as well as Mexico, before flowing into the Gulf of California.  

Recorded history shows Native American tribes began distributing water and forming societies around it in 600 A.D. Ancestral Pueblo and Hohokam Indians developed ways to distribute water from the river.   

“The water is in our DNA,” said Chairwoman Amelia Flores of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. “These are ancestral lands for us.” 

Special Section: TROUBLED WATERS: COLORADO RIVER CRISIS

​​​​​​​Native American tribes across the American Southwest, 30 of which use the water, have the oldest rights to the Colorado River water. 

But the way of the water was uncharted, and it wasn’t until the 1800s, as the Gold Rush roars on, that one explorer runs the rapids to put it all on paper. 

“Most of the basin was marked on maps for a long time as the great unknown,” said Sara Porterfield, an environmental historian and Western Water Policy Advisor with Trout Unlimited, a water conservation non-profit. “There wasn’t a lot known by White Americans about what was out here…And it wasn’t until 1869 when John Wesley Powell and his band of merry men floated the river, that White America got insight into what was down in these canyons.”  

Around the same time, something monumental happens in the legal world. A developer from San Francisco named Thomas Blythe makes a move. 

“In 1870, he did secure the very first water rights that gave California the most senior water rights along the river,” said Bart Fisher, the president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District.  

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Blythe, for whom the town two hours east of the Coachella Valley was named, is the first to file for rights, making California legally first in line for river water. He paves the way for Imperial Valley to file in the 1870s.Those rights in trust are now owned by Imperial Irrigation District, or IID, the largest water user along the Colorado River to this day, at 20% of all the water, to provide irrigation to farms and drinking water to San Diego and Los Angeles.  This all becomes incredibly important later. 

In 1905, the tempestuous river breaches a levy in the Imperial Valley, creating the modern day Salton Sea. 

“They had so much snowpack, so much runoff, it broke whatever levee they had. And then it flowed for two years into the Imperial Valley, creating Salton Sea,” said Robert Schettler, a spokesperson for IID. 

The breach was powerful, flooding towns and creating a massive body of water that is still here today, troubled in its toxicity, shrinking source of replenishment, and shrinking shoreline.  

“The floods that created the Salton Sea in 1905 to 1907 — right there was a real push for controlling and taming the Colorado River,” said Porterfield. 

But to do that — there had to be rules on the river.  

In 1922, representatives from seven states come together to sign the Colorado River Compact, creating the law we still follow today on how to divide and deliver water to each state, with a seniority system in place. To do so, they grouped the states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico into the Upper Basin and the states of California, Arizona, and Nevada into the Lower Basin.   

“The idea was that you divide the river at Lee’s Ferry, and each basin would be allocated approximately 7.5 million acre-feet,” said Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resource law at UC Boulder.  

One acre-foot is equal to one foot of water above one acre, which is about the size of a football field. It’s enough water to serve two average households for an entire year. 

“It’s hard to fathom the power of this river and how it’s moved across the centuries and across geographies,” said Porterfield.

In 1931, construction begins on the Hoover Dam to control the flooding of the river, so something like the Salton Sea never happens again and to provide water to the people and farms of California. It is an engineering sensation. Workers built a dam so massive that it spanned a canyon — 60 stories high — to contain the force of the Colorado. 

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“Construction started during the Great Depression. And because of that, it became a real symbol for the ingenuity and resilience of America in the face of hardship,” said Porterfield. 

To this day, the Hoover Dam stores the water going to Arizona, Nevada, and California. 

In 1956 — the Colorado River Storage Project Act passes, building four major dams to manage the river. These include the Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, Navajo, and the Aspinall Unit. 

And in 2000, our decades-long drought begins, which brings us to our current predicament. 

Remember in 1922, when the Colorado River Compact was created? Well, that year was a particularly wet year and legislators divvied up the water based on river levels then. And that, critics say, is where we went wrong.  

“We have allocated more water in the basin than there is actually physically water,” said Balaji Rajagopalan, a professor of hydrology with the Department of Civil Engineering at UC Boulder. 

Lawmakers back then decided 15 million acre-feet was the magic number and divided up the water, based on that. But we now know in any given year, the river only gives us around 12 million acre-feet, with human-driven climate change and chronic overuse hurting water supply. For too long, we have been trying to take more than the river is giving. 

This is a train headed for a cliff,” said John Weisheit, an environmentalist who co-founded Living Rivers and the Colorado Riverkeeper with the Water Keepers Alliance. “So as passengers of this train, maybe we should think about changing who’s in government, who their point is to manage their resources. I mean, are they doing a good job?” 

Critics say water has been mismanaged by those in power across all states that use it, rooted in a system that assumes we can always engineer more water, even when we don’t have it. 

Major cutbacks have to be made, but the entities high on the water rights list are reluctant to give it up.  

After all, water is life, economic growth, and money. It’s big business. 

But if no one can come to an agreement, then the life we’ve become used to in the west might shrivel, eroded by forces beyond our control.  

Next week, airing on Wednesday, November 8, Angela is taking a deep dive into the water rights along the Colorado River and why an agreement made more than 100 years ago is leading to fighting, lawsuits, and tough negotiations today.  

Head to KESQ.com/Colorado-River-Crisis to see behind-the-scenes clips — unexpected scares — and the journey that Angela and our team took to capture this story.  

“This series was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.”