Managers Turn to USU Water Experts to Understand Dynamics of a Dwindling Colorado River Supply

Leaders across the west are grappling with how to continue to share a diminishing supply of water from the Colorado River. If trends continue, thirsty cities, towns and farmlands won’t have enough water for their own needs, and won’t leave enough water behind for the river ecosystem to function. It’s a wicked problem, one that Jack Schmidt, Utah State University’s Janet Quinney Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies in the Department of Watershed Sciences and director of the Center for Colorado River Studies, has been wrestling with for years. 

“We have been coming to grips with the reality that the watershed produces less water,” said Schmidt in a recent article in the Arizona Republic. “The pie keeps shrinking.”

The Colorado River, which supplies cities and farmland across the west, has been chronically overused, and for two decades, drought and high temperatures have exacerbated the problem. The levels in Lake Mead have been on a downward trajectory, and the forecasts for Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona border aren’t any rosier—Lake Powell now is 50% full. 

“The original agreements for shared water use assumed that more water flows in the river than is the case today,” said Schmidt. “This has put tremendous pressure on human systems that depend on the river for water supply and also puts pressure on river ecosystems. The old political agreements may not adequately serve today’s modern challenges.”

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Next year, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will again receive less water from the Colorado River under a set of agreements intended to boost the level of Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, which is at just 40% full capacity. The cuts to Arizona and Nevada are part of a 2019 deal called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which will also affect California if reservoir levels continue to drop. Under a separate accord, Mexico will leave some of its allotted water in Lake Mead next year. 

The Colorado River is highly sensitive to warming, and higher temperatures aggravated by climate change are leading to less runoff across the river basin. Groups like Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies are trying to grapple with the uncertainty and looking for strategies to manage this long-term problem. Using on-the-ground research, scenario modeling and out-of-the-box thinking, researchers at USU have begun to unravel the complexities of the future of the Colorado River.

Federal officials plan to review how the existing rules have worked, and how the guidelines for potential water shortages, which were last approved in 2007, could be improved after 2026.

“We hope that the research and outreach undertaken at Utah State University can help inform those negotiations,” said Schmidt. 

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