Colorado River Crisis May Have Been Preventable – 100 Years Ago

( – A hydrologist working with the University of Colorado is shedding new light on the ongoing water crisis in the Colorado River, a vital lifeline for millions in the American West. During a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Professor Shemin Ge drew attention to historical oversights from a century-old study that she feels has directly contributed to the region’s present-day predicament.

The crux of Professor Ge’s presentation focused on a 1916 study by Eugene Clyde La Rue, a hydrologist who worked with the US Geological Survey at the time. Through field research, La Rue estimated an annual discharge rate of around 15 million acre-feet.

In 1922, the Colorado River Commission (CRC) opted to base its water allocation decisions on a much higher flow estimate of approximately 16.4 million acre-feet per year. According to Ge, this seemingly minor discrepancy carried long-term implications for water management in the Colorado River Basin.

Exactly why the CRC chose to overlook the figures from La Rue’s study remains unclear, but Ge believes it came down to practicality; larger numbers likely “made allocations easier to negotiate because there was more water to divvy up.”

Today, the Colorado River is in crisis. Key reservoirs, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are drying up. The river’s overall flow has dropped by nearly 20%, threatening access to clean water for nearly 40 million people.

Many scientists attribute the problem to climate change and increased demand for water. Ge believes the CRC’s decision to overlook La Rue’s evidence led to systemic overallocation of the river’s resources over time.

According to Ge, the most recent estimates place the annual discharge rate for the Colorado River at just 13 million. That’s well below both the numbers the CRC relied on for many years and La Rue’s original findings. It also leaves researchers like Ge asking whether the current crisis would be so severe if the commission hadn’t overlooked his 1916 study.

So, what happens now? Professor Ge is advocating for a total reevaluation of the Colorado River Compact. She feels there is a need for current leaders to learn from past mistakes and work in tandem with scientists, local Indigenous groups, and community members. In her eyes, the goal should be to develop a more accurate and sustainable ‘Law of the River’ that reflects the actual water availability in the West.

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