BY IAN JAMES, MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE LA TIMES
BERTHOUD PASS, Colo. —
The Colorado River begins as melting snow, trickling from forested peaks and coursing in streams that gather in the meadows and valleys of the Rocky Mountains.
Like arteries, its major tributaries take shape across Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, coming together in a great river like no other — a river that travels more than 1,400 miles and has defined the rise of the American Southwest over the last century.
Water diverted from the river has enabled agriculture to spread across 5 million acres of farmland and has fed the growth of cities from Denver to Los Angeles, supplying about 40 million people. Harnessing the river’s bounty has provided the foundation for life and the economy across seven states and northern Mexico.
White surfaces along the banks show previous water levels in Lake Powell on May 16. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
But the region has for years depended too heavily on the river, taking more than its flows can support. And in recent years, the river’s water-generating heart in the Rocky Mountains has begun to fail.
The Colorado River can no longer withstand the unbridled thirst of the arid West.
A century ago, the signing of the Colorado River Compact divided the water among the states. The agreement established a system that overpromised what the river could provide. That system, after years of warnings from scientists and insufficient efforts to adapt, is now colliding with the reality of a river that is overused and shrinking.
In the last 23 years, as rising temperatures fueled by the burning of fossil fuels have intensified the worst drought in centuries, the flow of the Colorado has declined about 20%.
Reservoirs have dropped to record-low levels, and the shortage continues to worsen. Scarcity is pushing the region toward a water reckoning.