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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

World Water Day highlights water concerns in Mountain West

A residential home with a backyard pool and grass lawn is fenced in and surrounded by arid desert with Las Vegas suburbs in the background along with desert land and mountains.
John Locher/AP
A home with a swimming pool abuts the desert on the edge of the Las Vegas valley July 20, 2022, in Henderson, Nev. The water agency that manages the Colorado River supply for Vegas is seeking authority to limit what comes out of residents' taps.

The United Nations recognized World Water Day on Wednesday as part of an annual effort to emphasize the worldwide water crisis. And while leaders in the western U.S. have made some strides, many water issues still exist.

“In much of the West, we face a situation where we have to figure out how to reduce consumptive water use and do that in a way that doesn't devastate local economies and the environment,” said Kevin Moran, associate vice president for regional affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “That's the fundamental challenge we face.”

The Colorado River, which travels over 1,400 miles across seven states and is relied on by 40 million people, is facing historic lows due to continuing drought. Lake Powell in Arizona, a reservoir fed by the river, is at 22 percent of capacity – the lowest it’s ever been. Lake Mead, another major reservoir, is not far behind at 28 percent capacity.

The upper half of the Colorado River near Soap Creek Rapid on November 8, 2022.
NPS Photo/B. Klein
The upper half of the Colorado River near Soap Creek Rapid on November 8, 2022.

“The Colorado River Basin is ground zero for the impact of acidification on water supplies and increasing water insecurity for communities and the environment,” he said.

Other rivers are running low and drying up as well. Last summer, sections of the Rio Grande, for example, dried up for the first time in 40 years. This can not only cause problems for farmers and water users, but also for endangered species that live in the river.

“I think it's been a real wake up call for many of us in the West and certainly New Mexicans who cherish and rely on that river,” Moran said.

This shows an aerial view of the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico with the river running through the middle.
Steve deBurque
The Rio Grande Gorge on July 11, 2012 in New Mexico. In some areas the river is dried up for the first time in 40 years.

Even with above-average snowfall this season, factors like soil moisture and increased temperatures can affect how much reaches the rivers.

“It's really easy to want to believe that one good rainy spring or a couple of big storms are going to change the story, are going to change the work we have to do,” Moran said. “We think that's absolutely not the case.”

Moran highlighted Nevada’s water conservation efforts. One recent proposal would require septic tank users to connect to municipal wastewater treatment plants to recycle water and send it downstream to Lake Mead.

Other states are lagging behind. Moran, who lives in Arizona, said 80% of the state’s land does not have any groundwater regulations. That means users can pump as much water as they want — even if it dries up neighboring wells.

Moran said more states need to be proactive and work on water conservation strategies, now more than ever. He hopes that a year from now, leaders will be negotiating details of an agreement across the seven states to reduce water use on the Colorado River.

“That's a tall order, I sound a little Pollyannaish, perhaps by saying that, but I believe that ought to be the goal,” he said. “If we make the environment and the health of the river itself an afterthought, we risk making the entire situation even worse.”

He recommends that western residents use water timing devices and lower water use appliances to conserve water, as well as support members of Congress who want to advance conservation efforts.

“Climate change is water change — in many parts of the world, the first time we experience the realities of aridification and the ravages of climate change is through water,” he said. “I think as citizens, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Okay, we're going to do these things to conserve water. I'm going to be a responsible resident. And I want to contribute to solving the underlying problem.’”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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