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Colorado River Drying Up Due to Climate Change

December 5, 2008

Scientists predict even more water shortages over the next several years for seven Western states due to the added affects of human-caused climate change.

The Colorado River has suffered from drought and a growing population, putting area residents “on a collision course between supply and demand,” said Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado.

Reduced water flows, increased air temperatures and higher than ever demands on the Colorado River are among the early signs of a drastic water shortage. The river serves Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, an area where 30 million people live.

During a conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, scientists said they expect less water to be available in the coming decades if area officials fail to change their approach to water management.

“To me, it’s not going to be a pretty debate,” said Dave Wegner, science director for the Glen Canyon Institute, which organized the one-day conference at the University of Utah.

A study released in February by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego said there’s a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which straddles the Arizona-Nevada state line, could run dry by 2021.

“The current usage is simply not sustainable,” Barnett said.

Udall says it’s important to determine when these changes will occur, rather than if they will at all.

Even if the West’s climate doesn’t get as warm as predicted, the river system will likely be faced with shortages, said Gregory McCabe, a project chief at the U.S. Geological Survey’s water resources division in Denver.

Building more reservoirs to store water probably won’t be enough to mitigate the effects of changes to the system – especially warming temperatures, he said.

The most obvious approach would be to decrease water demand from the Colorado by diversifying.

The 20th century was one of the wettest going back several centuries. But it shouldn’t be assumed that water levels will remain as plentiful in the future, researchers said.

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