Who gets harmed as the Colorado River changes?

Negative impacts of water shortages will be vast.

National and regional media love a good fight, and lately a day doesn’t pass without a major news story or op-ed focused on Colorado River disagreements, particularly amongst the seven states of the Colorado River Basin (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). Which state must bear the brunt of shortages needed as Colorado River flows decline? Which sector of water users takes the hit as climate change continues to diminish the river? Should urban water supplies be protected because that’s where all the people are? (Municipal water supply representatives will quickly remind us that if all urban uses of Colorado River water were cut off, there would still be a shortage). Should agricultural water supplies be protected because we all need to eat? Historic agreements and common sense tend to clash—or don’t—depending on who is telling the story.

Lost in this description of the fight is any indication of who—and what—will actually be harmed as changes are made in the management and allocations of the Colorado River’s water. We can expect that the federal government—using the lion’s share of the $4 billion made available for western drought in the Inflation Reduction Act—will pay water rights holders to not to use their allotment. But the third-party impacts of reducing water uses in the Colorado River will be enormous and Audubon is deeply concerned about all of us who rely on the Colorado River including:

Farmers and farmworkers: in the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada)—which will bear the brunt of imposed water shortages—landowners with water rights for irrigation often lease to tenant farmers, who won’t make money if they are not farming. The people laboring on fallowed farms are going to be unemployed too, even if water rights holders are compensated.

Community health: where irrigated farming declines, fields will be left fallow, and dust in the air will increase, degrading air quality and harming human health, particularly for people with existing respiratory conditions like asthma.

Agribusiness: think of the businesses that sell seed, repair tractors, package produce—they all depend on farming. As water shortages reduce the number of acres in production, revenues will decrease for agribusiness meaning financial hardships for workers and small companies that rely on the farming industry.

Rural communities: local, reduced farm income means reduced economic activity impacting everything from tax payments for local governments (schools, roads, parks, etc.) to reduced sales at the local diner.

Tribes: at the end of the day, when economic winds shift, many people will move to seek jobs where they can find them. But Tribal members have homelands in designated reservations established by treaties with the United States. People who live in these communities are already vulnerable, and local economic downturns may hurt them more than others.

Urban communities: Cities that use Colorado River water typically have junior rights, making them first in line for water shortages. They will need to make substantial investments in water conservation, and in some cases in acquiring replacement water supplies, likely resulting in increased household costs for water.

Birds, and all the other living things that depend on the Colorado River: climate change is shrinking the river, and management decisions may further harm birds and wildlife that depend on the river’s habitats. The Grand Canyon, Colorado River Delta, Salton Sea, and forests and wetlands created to support endangered species on the Lower Colorado River mainstem are all at risk. Yuma Ridgway’s Rails, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and scores of other species may lose habitat they desperately need.

The federal funds available for the Colorado River are important—they provide incentive for water rights holders to voluntarily use less water even if they hold “senior rights” under western water law. But these funds won’t prevent the looming economic and environmental disaster. For twenty years Colorado River water users have deferred the impact of drought by using water stored in Lakes Mead and Powell. Those reservoirs are now largely empty, and the bill has come due. Unfortunately, those who will be paying the biggest price aren’t going to be getting the federal funds designated for the Colorado River Basin. Federal and state governments will need to come up with other ways to mitigate these impacts and support these groups as the Colorado River continues to shrink.