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The Colorado River continues to shrink. Here's where the water is going

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, April 1, 2024 - 11:51am

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Stakeholders across the Southwest are working to figure out how to use less water on the Colorado River as it continues to shrink.

Reservoirs in the region are drying up and the future of water in our state is up in the air as negotiations continue. 

Now, a new study is shedding light on just where much of that shrinking water supply is going: hay. Hay and alfalfa that is grown to feed cattle and produce beef and dairy. In fact, this study shows it’s 46% of the river’s water.

That’s a number that’s getting a lot of attention. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny joined the Show to talk about it.

Melissa Sevigny
Alexis Knapp
Melissa Sevigny

Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning, Melissa.

MELISSA SEVIGNY: Good morning.

GILGER: OK. So tell us more about this study. First of all, they looked at water usage on the whole on the river to give us kind of a full accounting of where every drop is going essentially.

SEVIGNY: That's exactly right. And it surprised me, but this is really the first time that this complete accounting has been done. So we're talking about where the water's going through the seven Colorado River basin states in the U.S. and also in Mexico, and they broke it up by what humans are using for agriculture, cities, things like that. But of what the environment itself is using, so evaporation and transpiration from plants. So it's really a very comprehensive accounting and that's never been done before.

GILGER: Yeah, that is surprising it's never been done before. And we should say this is happening as states in the region are negotiating this right now. They're working to cut a whole lot of water usage going forward. Where do those negotiations stand?

SEVIGNY: That's right. Yeah, we're kind of at the beginning of negotiations for what water is going to look like post-2026 in the Colorado River basin states. And it's hard to say where they stand because this is a complicated issue and it's pretty tough for people to figure out how we're going to use less water going forward. So the authors of this paper are really hoping that this accounting are going to help inform those discussions.

GILGER: Yeah. OK. So let's talk more about it. You spoke with the lead author of this paper and the big news here, as I said is that they found a whole lot of water is going toward hay, hay for cattle, hay, for dairy products, hay for beef, things like that. How much?

SEVIGNY: So it's about half of the direct human use of water is going just to two crops, alfalfa and hay that are used to feed cattle. And if you step back and you look at the overall picture, all of the water from the Colorado River basin, it's about a third overall. So that's really one thing.

GILGER: Melissa, are you there? You you you back with us, Melissa.

SEVIGNY: Yes. Can you hear me OK?

GILGER: I can. Thank you. OK. So we're talking about where this water has gone. This full accounting, this report has given us much of it goes to hay. So tell us, you know, does this mean that farmers will need to grow different products going forward, grow less of everything? I know in many states right now, the federal government is mitigating usage by paying farmers to fallow some, some land, right?

SEVIGNY: I think that's going to be a big part of the discussions going forward. And this really is a question of values. You know, we're going to have to have a lot of conversation about what we want our states to look like in the Colorado River Basin. And does that mean we're going to shift to growing low water use crops? Does it mean we're going to reduce our beef and dairy consumption? This is a conversation that collectively we need to have as a society.

GILGER: Yeah. OK. So give us a quick accounting of where the rest of the water from the Colorado River is going as this report outlines. You said evaporation, agriculture takes a lot of us. Give us a quick breakdown, right?

SEVIGNY: So for the overall picture, irrigated agriculture is taking about half of the water, about 1/5 of it is going to c commercial uses industrial uses. And, and then the rest is going kind of to the environment. So about 20% consumed by the environment itself. We're talking about, you know, trees growing along the Colorado River ecosystem, you know, taking up that water. And then a really surprising number to me was that 11% of all of the water consumed in the basin is lost through evaporation from reservoirs.

GILGER: Wow, evaporation. Yeah. OK. So as we said, negotiations are ongoing, so how much of how much do researchers in this paper say we might need to cut things based on what they found? What's their number they came up with?

SEVIGNY: 20%, which sounds a little daunting, but that's very much in line with what other researchers have said about how much we are currently overdraw the Colorado River.

GILGER: Yeah. OK. And I want to end with this one because you asked the lead researcher here a really great question and I wanted you to outline that for us, you asked him how he would do it, right? Like how would he get to a 20% cut in usage if he were in charge? What did he have to say?

SEVIGNY: Right. Yeah, I think he was very diplomatic about the things that we needed to do. Again, this is a wider conversation that we have to have, but he brought up some really important points, which is a really critical one is that when we first divided up this water, we didn't necessarily do it equitably. And so, what we need to do in these conversations going forward is talk about how do we make sure we secure water for Native American tribes who were originally left out of the Colorado River compact. How do we protect ecosystems going forward? It's a really big conversation to have. It's not going to be easy. But the lead author actually told me he had a lot of hope because right now he said we're using water quite wastefully. And so there's a lot we can do. There are a lot of moves we can make to be more efficient and careful with our water use.

GILGER: I guess a little silver lining there to end with. That is KNAU's Melissa Sevigny joining us to talk more about this report. Melissa, thank you for your reporting here. Thanks for coming on.

SEVIGNY: Thanks for having me.

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