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Opinion: The simple, big reason Colorado’s rivers are drying up

More water is being used than is being replenished. Dams don’t fix that

Icy beads of water are beginning to form and flow off the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado. As the droplets merge into tiny trickles, they are pulled on vast journeys to the rivers who carry them to the sea.

Rica Fulton, left, and Jen Pelz

Along Colorado’s Continental Divide, water droplets may embark on a nearly 1,900-mile journey down the eastern mountains, joining the Rio Grande in hopes of reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Or, descend the Western Slope to first merge with the Dolores River, and then the Colorado River to travel 1,450 miles toward the Gulf of California.

Today, that epic source-to-sea voyage is almost impossible given excessive human demands, massive systems of infrastructure, and the acute effects of climate change on water availability.

While there is no doubt that climate change is accelerating the water crisis in the West, it is not the underlying reason why western rivers are disappearing. The Rio Grande and Dolores Rivers are drying because the water allocation system itself is not sustainable: More water is being used than is being replenished.

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A century of engineering dams and the blessing of wet hydrology in the 20th Century to fill these reservoirs created water savings. However, those reserves only fueled more demand and created unrealistic expectations about future water availability helping to propel this unsound system forward.

In 2021, both the Rio Grande and Dolores Rivers ran dry.

Along the Dolores, muddy cobbles protruded through lackadaisical water and around isolated pools, normally feet underwater during spring runoff. Similarly, sediment beneath the once-flowing Rio Grande cracked with dryness for miles, leaving fish exposed to the pounding sun and communities without a living river.

While these two rivers are different in terms of size, water use, and geography, they are both drying for similar reasons: Our water management system is flawed and failing.

Water allocation systems in the West are built upon unsustainable principles and flawed science. Fundamental agreements in both basins are based on unusually wet conditions that existed at the start of the 20th century. As a result, the system fails to acknowledge, protect, or account for the requirements of river ecosystems; the needs, cultures, and sovereignty of Indigenous people; or the value of recreation and other social or economic benefits that flow from rivers.

These century-old shortcomings must be remedied to ensure the benefits of water are distributed equitably going forward.

This system was already at its breaking point in the late 1800s—long before the devastating impacts of climate change. In the Rio Grande Basin, water shortages similar to those today, impacted long-established irrigators in New Mexico, El Paso, and the Mesilla Valley as a result of drought and water development upstream in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

The conflict became so severe that the Secretary of the Interior placed a moratorium on all water development until a compromise could be reached. Similarly, today, we need to bring the system back into balance and ensure climate resilience. This will require a significant reduction in use and redistribution of water in a manner that does not perpetuate historic inequities.

Dam building became the band-aid solution in the 20th century. McPhee Dam and Reservoir, on the Dolores River, was constructed in the 1980s to provide agricultural water for the region.

While the project delivers much-needed water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, overall, 75% of the river’s flow is exported for irrigation into the San Juan River watershed, draining the Dolores and destroying its ecological integrity. Despite the dam, the region has been struggling to stay afloat because the amount of water that is allocated often exceeds the water that is actually available each year. Just because there is a bucket to fill does not mean there is water to fill it.

Dams are not the answer to water security, and the status quo is harmful for everyone.

A new path forward requires a reckoning with this flawed system; we must pressure our elected officials and natural-resource managers to find solutions that are just, inclusive, and honor both past and future values of our rivers. We cannot engineer our way out of the climate crisis.

Water droplets have traveled these paths since time immemorial and we need a system that honors this journey and the people and ecosystems encountered along the way.


Rica Fulton, of Grand Junction, is advocacy and stewardship director for Dolores River Boating Advocates. Jen Pelz, of Centennial, is an attorney and the Rio Grande waterkeeper and Wild Rivers Program director at WildEarth Guardians.


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