Colorado over the past 20 years has suffered more major natural disasters than Florida and is among nine states where the number of events causing $1 billion or more in damage has more than tripled over the past 40 years, according to a new study from QuoteWizard, an insurance policy search engine. Between 1982 and 2001, Colorado recorded a dozen major natural disasters, but in the two decades that followed, it recorded 45, an increase of 275%. Only Kansas, despite its much smaller population and economy, had a bigger gain at 288%, going from 16 to 62 major disasters.
“Natural disasters of this magnitude used to happen infrequently in Colorado – about one every other year. Now, they are happening twice a year (on average),” said Nick VinZant, an analyst with QuoteWizard in an email.
A larger population spread across larger swaths of the state, not to mention more expensive cars, homes and infrastructure to replace when things go wrong only offer a partial explanation. The blame mostly comes down to much more unstable weather patterns.
“Climate change is the main reason why Colorado has seen such a significant increase in major natural disasters. Storms are more severe, the wildfire season is longer and drought has become more common,” VinZant said.
Fourteen droughts have devastated the livelihood of farmers, ranchers and tourism attractions over prolonged stretches. By contrast, the 11 major wildfires wreaked their misery over a few days or hours in the case of the Marshall fire on December 30. Fueled by winds topping 100 mph, the grass fire destroyed 1,084 homes worth more than $500 million to become the most damaging in state history in terms of structures destroyed.
[Governor Pete] Ricketts signed legislation authorizing a $500 million canal meant to counter what Nebraska sees as attempts in Colorado to potentially hold back future water flows on the South Platte River. Nebraska will invoke a nearly 100-year-old clause in a water compact between the two states to dig out what is commonly called the Perkins County Canal. Nebraska lawmakers last week passed the bill, LB 1015, to back the canal project despite some concerns about its costs and possible legal battles ahead.
“Today, we enacted two key laws to strengthen Nebraska’s water resources,” Ricketts said in signing the bill. “LB 1015 helps protect the South Platte River water we depend on for drinking water, agricultural irrigation, and to nourish our natural environment.”
Ricketts also signed a separate bill, LB 1023, that will create a 3,600-acre lake in eastern Nebraska, as well as fund some other recreational projects.
Ricketts began championing the Perkins County Canal early in the year, cautioning against plans for water projects in Colorado totaling nearly $10 billion. Ricketts told lawmakers at a hearing in February, “Colorado is looking to take our water.” Ricketts said the canal is also a “hedge against drought” in western Nebraska as well.
Nebraska has a compact with Colorado that guarantees the state of Nebraska minimum flows of South Platte River water throughout the year…
Kent Miller, general manger of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District out of North Platte, Neb., told DTN he’s been urging Nebraska leaders for the last 25 years to invoke a clause in the South Platt River Compact to build the canal…
Nebraska officials said Monday it would likely take close to a decade before the Perkins County Canal can be built.
Click the link to read about America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2022 on the American Rivers website. Here’s an excerpt:
It is time to do more than plan. We must implement strategies that allow the Colorado River to thrive in the face of climate change. Failure is not an option.
The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people, irrigates five million acres of farm and ranch land, and supports a $1.4 trillion economy. All of this is at risk due to rising temperatures and drought driven by climate change, combined with outdated river management and overallocation of limited water supplies. River flows are at historic lows and the levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs are dropping precipitously. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the seven basin states and the Biden administration now have a critical opportunity to implement proven, equitable solutions that enhance water security and river health, while building resilience to future climate change. Failure is simply not an option, given all that depends on a healthy, flowing Colorado River.
American Rivers appreciates the collaboration and efforts of our partners:
National Audubon Society
Environmental Defense Fund
Western Resource Advocates
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Water for Arizona
Water for Colorado
Raise the River
Business for Water Stewardship
Click the link to read “America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2022 Spotlights Rivers in Crisis Mode” on the American Rivers website (Jessie Thomas-Blate):
Today [April 18, 2022] we are announcing America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022 and sounding the alarm that our nation’s rivers and clean water are in crisis.
Catastrophic drought. Disastrous floods. Fish and other freshwater species nearing extinction, as rivers heat up.
Many people in the United States have imagined climate change as a problem in the future. But it is here now, and the primary way that each of us is experiencing climate change is through water. The climate crisis is a water crisis.
Today we are announcing America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022 and sounding the alarm that our nation’s rivers and clean water are in crisis. Topping the list this year is the Colorado River, which is threatened by climate change and outdated water management. Thirty federally-recognized Tribal Nations, seven states, Mexico and 40 million people who rely on the river for drinking water are being impacted by this crisis. Also threatened is vital habitat for wildlife, as the Basin is home to 30 native fish species, two-thirds of which are threatened or endangered, and more than 400 bird species.
In March 2022, water levels at Lake Powell (the impoundment created by Glen Canyon Dam in Utah/Arizona) fell to the lowest point since the lake first filled in 1980. The Colorado River system is already operating at a deficit, and climate change is expected to further reduce the river’s flow by 10 to 30 percent by 2050. We’re calling on the Biden administration and the seven Basin states to work together to allocate funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to implement proven, equitable solutions that prioritize river health and water security.
Our country’s rivers need attention now. We must work better. Smarter. More equitably. We must elevate Tribal Nations and learn from their Traditional Ecological Knowledge. We must work collaboratively with frontline communities along the Mississippi River, and in places like the Mobile River (AL) and Tar Creek (OK), where residents deal with pollution on a regular basis. We must heed the calls of Tribal Nations to restore rivers like the Snake River.
California makes a prominent appearance in the report this year as well. In addition to the Colorado River (a key source of drinking water for some California residents), also featured are the Los Angeles River (threatened by inadequate management, climate change and pollution) and the Lower Kern River (threatened by excessive water withdrawals).
No matter where you live in the United States, your river and your drinking water are affected by climate change. Black, Indigenous, Latino/a/x and other communities of color feel these impacts most acutely, due to historical and contemporary policies, practices and norms that maintain inequities. It’s time to follow the lead of frontline communities that are advancing solutions for rivers and clean water — solutions that will make us all safer and healthier, and our nation stronger.
Did you know that later this year is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act? How can it be that are we still battling over the importance of clean water? This battle comes to the ground on Arizona’s San Pedro River where rollbacks to the Clean Water Act initiated during the Trump administration have removed protections for seasonal and intermittent streams, which encompass almost 94 percent of the San Pedro River’s waterways and provide the lifeblood that sustains the river. We must protect the Waters of the U.S. now, before it is too late.
Rounding out this year’s report are Alabama’s Coosa River, which is threatened by pollution from industrial poultry farming, and Maine’s Atlantic Salmon Rivers, where we have an opportunity to save Atlantic salmon by making better decisions during the upcoming relicensing of hydropower dams.
All of these rivers face critical decisions this year, and you can do something to help. Go check out your favorite river from this report and TAKE ACTION TODAY!
If we are to meet this moment and confront the challenges facing our clean water, environment and communities, we must come together as a powerful movement, speaking up for the rivers that give us life — for these 10 endangered rivers, and all of the rivers essential to our shared future.
America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022
#1 Colorado River
State: CO, UT, AZ, NV, CA, WY, NM, Mexico
Threat: Climate change, outdated water management
#2 Snake River
State: ID, WA, OR
Threat: Four federal dams
#3 Mobile River
Threat: Coal ash contamination
#4 Maine’s Atlantic Salmon Rivers
#5 Coosa River
State: TN, GA, AL
Threat: Agricultural pollution
#6 Mississippi River
State: MN, WI, IL, IA, MO, KY, TN, AR, MS, LA
Threat: Pollution, habitat loss
#7 Lower Kern River
Threat: Excessive water withdrawals
#8 San Pedro River
Threat: Excessive water pumping; loss of Clean Water Act protections
#9 Los Angeles River
Threat: Development, pollution
#10 Tar Creek
Click the link to read “Colorado River named most endangered waterway in US” on the OutThereColorado.com website (Carol McKinley). Here’s an excerpt:
The Colorado River Basin is home to 30 native fish species, many of which are threatened. More than 400 bird species depend on the area as well. The 1,450-mile river provides water for Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Unlike Colorado’s other rivers, it touches all four corners of the state.
Rancher Paul Bruchez, his dad and his brother moved their families from Westminster to Kremmling in 2000 with a dream of ranching in the mountains. They bought the 6,000-acre Reeder Creek Ranch in part because the Colorado River runs through it. For a couple of glorious years, all was flowing according to plan: The Rocky Mountain snowpack fed the river, the fish were thriving and the crops grew tall. But when the drought of 2002 hit, the snowmelt was around half of where it was supposed to be and warm temperatures made things worse, quickening the thaw so that runoff didn’t last very long. That year, Bruchez could walk across the river in places and see the fish going belly up in the warm water.
“Come 2003, my family had a meeting. We wondered, did we move to the wrong place? Instead of leaving, we decided to adapt and adjust to the river flow, climate change and population growth,” Bruchez told The Denver Gazette.
Seeing no quick fix, Bruchez established a restoration project and a Colorado Basin roundtable and prepared to go along for the ride. Over time, Bruchez’s projects have led to water savings and recovery.
Click the link to read “Advocacy group asks Southwest to ‘amp up the urgency’ on protecting Colorado River water” on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Here’s an excerpt:
“The urgency is extreme,” American Rivers spokesman Sinjin Eberle said, noting that the river serves some 40 million people and production of most of the nation’s winter vegetables. “We have to do something now.”
“What we’re facing is the permanent warming and drying of the American Southwest,” Colorado State University water and climate scientist Brad Udall said in a statement. His research and outspoken warnings have suggested there’s little time to waste throttling back on water use when rising heat is causing plants and the atmosphere to sponge up springtime runoff before it ever reaches the river…
For its part, Arizona is working with neighbors to pay some users to keep water in Lake Mead over the next few years. These efforts follow a first-ever federal shortage declaration for 2022, which caused Arizona to forego water that otherwise would support Pinal County farms. In response those farmers have planted less and shifted to a declining groundwater supply.
The crisis is harming more than water suppliers’ outlooks. Lower reservoir levels are also limiting options for protecting the river’s own environment, especially in the Grand Canyon.
The prioritization of power generation at Glen Canyon Dam contributed to a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation not to release water to create an artificial flood to restore beaches and sandbars in Grand Canyon last fall, despite an abundance of rain-driven sand from last year’s monsoon season that had primed the river to deliver the desired results…
Experiments with flushing water from Flaming Gorge Dam, upstream on the Green River, a Colorado River tributary, showed success in dislodging young bass from their protected nests and reducing numbers there, Bestgen told colleagues. A similar effort could make life hard for any bass that get established in Grand Canyon, but would further deplete Lake Powell’s storage.
Click the link to read “Colorado River named the most endangered in the U.S. by conservation group” on the Colorado Public Radio website (Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:
The report highlighted how climate change and drought have affected the river but also faulted outdated water management practices for dwindling flows and low reservoir levels. Rice said the stakes are high, and more needs to be done to conserve the water that’s left. He said the basin states and the Biden administration must work urgently with the tribes and Mexico.
“We’ve made management decisions based on a river that hasn’t existed for a long time,” Rice said. “We have to use less water.”
American Rivers also released a list of strategies it recommends to adapt to a drier and warmer world. Rice wrote for the report that the scale and pace of climate-related changes in the Colorado River Basin “pose a gargantuan challenge, unprecedented in the history of water management.” Those strategies include changes to how federal infrastructure dollars are spent, like prioritizing forest management, restoring natural meadow systems to improve water retention and aquifer recharge and covering reservoirs and canals to reduce evaporation.
The report also details how drinking water across the U.S. is affected by climate change and notes how communities of color often feel these impacts most acutely because of “historical and contemporary policies, practices and norms that maintain inequities.” The report also urges water managers to follow the lead of tribal nations and frontline communities that are advancing solutions for rivers and clean water. Tribes in the Colorado River basin have long pushed for more inclusion in how the river is managed.
The Colorado River, or portions of it, have made the list in years prior, but the river is being stressed as never before because of the level of demands on it and its diminishing water volumes, thanks to drought exacerbated by climate change. As American Rivers notes, the river is relied on by seven states, 30 federally recognized tribal nations and Mexico. It provides drinking water to 40 million people and vital habitat, including 30 native fish species and more than 400 types of birds. It also has been besieged by drought throughout this century, made worse by warmer conditions that further reduce snowpack runoff volumes…
Last summer, American Rivers and other conservation groups issued a list of 10 strategies to respond to climate change in the Colorado River Basin. These included things such as urban water conservation and reuse, shifting by farmers to crops requiring less water, improving land management practices to reduce the amount of dust that blows onto snowpack and accelerates snowmelt, prioritizing forest management and restoration, and upgrading agricultural infrastructure and operations. Rice also hopes to see increased efforts to restore headwaters, invest in watershed health, reconnect floodplains, ensure healthy riparian zones and restore rivers that have been diverted.