News Coverage

11 March 2024

NEWSWEEK: Thirst for Change: The Imperative to Preserve the Colorado River

Category: News Coverage

The Colorado River originating high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and stretching an impressive 1,450 miles, crossing 30 tribal nations and most of the United States, is a lifeline winding through the arid landscapes of the American Southwest. It meets the water needs of 40 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural land, generates electricity through its various dams, and supports a $1.4 trillion economy and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the West. Its ecological significance is equally extraordinary, as it nurtures vast landscapes, including the 277 miles within the Grand Canyonsupports 65 percent of wild species in the West, and safeguards numerous culturally significant sites. Imperiled by climate change and overuse by the very states that rely on its waters, it now faces a daunting future. This is an issue that is not just of environmental local concern but also of national interest.

We are in an unprecedented water crisis. Due to one of the driest periods in the past 1,200 years, exacerbated by increased temperatures, the Colorado River faces significant challenges. The decrease in rainfall of 23.9 percent, coupled with a demand increase to 124,457 acre-feet of water, has led to a runoff flow decrease of 38.6 percent. Since many of us can go to our homes today and turn on the faucet, brush our teeth, and drink out of that faucet, we take it for granted and we don't realize how we are depleting the river.

The Latino community is especially affected by the Colorado River’s health. The river basin is home to one-third of the U.S. Latino population, and a substantial number of Latinos are engaged in agriculture as farmworkers, relying on access to its water for irrigation and crop cultivation. It is no surprise why its conservation is a focal point of concern for Latino voters in the West, with 83 percent of these voters recognizing the river as critical to their state’s economy, and 84 percent believing it requires urgent action.

Having so many states, industries, and stakeholders relying on the river’s waters makes water policy challenging and complex. An example of that is in Western Colorado, where I live, which includes a regional water-consuming economy built around skiing, a ranching and agriculture economy, and energy production via hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking). We have competing interests and stakeholders advocating for water to be used for tourism, others for food production, and others for energy production, all of them advocating for their interests in different ways. Therefore, fostering a collective and unifying voice for water usage and sustainability is nuanced, culturally complex, and economically stratifying. This layered conceptualization of water conservation poses challenges in the legislative process.

As such, we must work collaboratively across geographical lines, cultural lines, and political lines to support and uphold the “Clean Water Act of 2023, which would reinstate the historic and bipartisan federal-state partnership that had protected the Colorado River for over 50 years. We need to have plans in place for water usage that are not just sustainable but regenerative because there is much that is lost that we probably can’t recuperate. We need to actively participate in the river’s conservation and legislative initiatives, and most importantly, raise awareness about the matter; conservation starts with education. This can be done by partnering with schools, religious institutions, non-profit organizations, and other places where people gather. Knowledge about water resources and successful conservation strategies like the ones highlighted in the Hispanic Access Foundation waterways report must be presented to people in a way that feels meaningful to their everyday lives and empowers them to participate in the policy of the Colorado River. 

Latinos are the group that suffers the greatest water injustice and are most invested in proper water management in the region. Therefore, we can become the most passionate advocates. Through community organizing, Western Colorado community members elected Elizabeth Velasco as the first Latina state representative from the region. Now, there is a bill she passed, requiring water quality testing and state accountability to make sure more people have secure water access

We all have a voice and the power to share our lived experiences, spark a dialog, foster a connection, and find a likeness where there may be differences. This kind of community building can help achieve meaningful change to support us all. We are all connected through the water that we depend on and use to support our everyday lives. Coming together to understand how we can bridge gaps in water usage is essential to keep our communities in place now and for future generations.

Written by Rachel Forbes, a member of Hispanic Access' Climate Council, for Newsweek.

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