Tierna Unruh-Enos is publisher at The Paper.

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The Colorado River has been named America’s most endangered river, for the first time since 2013, according to a new report by American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group.

Why is the Colorado River so important to the Southwest and New Mexico?

  • More than 40 million people in seven states, including New Mexico and 30 Tribal nations in the Southwest rely on the Colorado for drinking water.
  • The Colorado River water irrigates 15 percent of America’s farmland and produce 90 percent of its winter vegetables, according to Ceres, a sustainable investment advocacy group.

The Colorado River’s outdated water management practices have been worsened by climate change, pushing the river into the No. 1 slot, the group said. As we reported, last year, the federal government declared a water shortage on the river for the first time, triggering mandatory water consumption cuts for states in the Southwest.

Although the Colorado River system is already operating at a deficit, the report says that the climate crisis will likely continue to reduce the river’s flow by 10 to 30 percent by 2050. American Rivers reports if the river system collapse, the economic toll would be staggering. If the Colorado River basin was a country, it would rank as the 7th largest economy in the world, according to American Rivers.

Albuquerque relies on locally pumped groundwater as well as surface water imported from the Colorado River basin via the San Juan-Chama Project. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is one of many agencies tasked with protecting
the watersheds in which our local supply originates. New Mexico missed getting the first round of cuts to its water supply, which is about 11 percent of our water, or 7.5 million acre-feet of water. It means right now the water won’t further decrease flowing from the Colorado River Basin through the San Juan-Chama Project to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Rio Grande Valley farmers, at least for now.

This last summer saw Lake Mead and Lake Powell reach record lows, which forced Arizona, Utah, and parts of New Mexico to cut their water consumption for cities and farmers in what is known as Tier 1 cuts. “Altogether, the Upper Colorado River Basin will have to collectively reduce its water use between 2 – 4 million acre-feet to avoid using more water than it is entitled to. Without such action, serious economic impacts may befall Upper Basin water users including cities, farms and tribes,” a report by the Utah River Council stated.

American Rivers has published the endangered rivers list since the 1980s in collaboration with other conservation groups. It curates the list based on major proposed actions that the public could help influence, the significance of the river to people and ecosystems and the scale of the threat.