11-foot wall of water: One dam breaks, three counties suffer — The Lincoln Journal Star

Nebraska state officials flew over the flood-ravaged Spencer Dam on March 16, 2019. The Niobrara River had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gage height before it broke through the 90-year-old dam early on March 14, 2019. After that, an 11-foot wave rolled through. Photo credit: State of Nebraska

Here’s a report on the flooding in Nebraska from Peter Salter writing for The Lincoln Journal Star. Click through and read the whole article and check out the various videos. Here’s an excerpt:

From their offices in Lincoln early Thursday, hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey were monitoring the final few moments of a stream gauge more than 200 miles away, on the Niobrara River.

It was hinting at something catastrophic.

“We were watching it from here, and it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” said Jason Lambrecht. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”

The gauge had been ripped away by the wall of water released when the 90-year-old Spencer Dam failed under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice. But its last readings allowed Lambrecht to measure the size of the surge.

Earlier, the Niobrara had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gauge height. After it broke through the dam, it measured nearly 17.5 feet. It wasn’t a gradual increase, either…

And in its wake, three Nebraska counties would learn how that much moving water can become immediately destructive and potentially deadly. How it can cause instant pain and long-term suffering. How it can harm not only those in its path, but those living miles away.

First, the wave swept away a section of U.S. 281, a nearby riverside saloon and at least one home, possibly occupied. And it continued downstream, barreling toward the town of Niobrara — and its mouth at the Missouri River — about 40 miles away.

Knox County: ‘It’s crazy’

The service station owners thought they were ready for the coming water.

They’d taken the tire machine and other equipment away. They brought the important paperwork home. They put their ’68 Camaro up on the lift. They moved the rest of what they could to higher ground, filling the rafters with inventory.

And the couple had a huge inventory. Vic’s Service has anchored the west edge of Niobrara for 25 years, and had enough hydraulic fittings and plumbing pieces to serve as a kind of farmer’s supply store, said Ruth Janak, who co-owns the station with her husband, Victor.

They checked on their business Wednesday, and found it already swamped with 4 feet of water, her desk upturned, pop machines on their sides. A mess, but nothing they couldn’t handle.

“We thought, when the water recedes, we’ll be able to get in and clean all that up,” she said.

They returned Thursday, and found most of it missing.

“Our main building, the one we did our business at, it’s gone. The gas pumps are gone. We lost the propane tank. So many tools are gone,” Janak said Friday. “Where’s all that stuff at? It’s crazy.”

Later, she would find a jug of hydraulic fluid — and someone else’s pontoon boat — on what remained of the town’s golf course. But their main building, and much of what it contained, had likely tumbled downstream.

Theirs wasn’t the only missing building. The wall of water had brutalized Niobrara’s west side, a low-lying commercial district, and the part of town closest to the river.

Jody Stark, the chair of the village board, listed the other casualties. Several buildings from a hay business? Gone. A state Department of Transportation garage? Gone. A Knox County road shop? Gone. The Mormon Bridge on Nebraska 12? Stark has video of the deck floating away. The Country Cafe? Still standing, but it had been nearly swallowed by water and ice, with maybe a foot of the roof visible at one point.

“A lot of buildings washed away,” he said. “They were pretty much swept right down the river and they’re in the Missouri somewhere.”

The good news? Almost all of the 300 or so residents of Niobrara live on higher ground, and weren’t directly hurt by the floodwaters…

Still, his town was struggling. The flooding compromised the town’s two wells, leaving its residents without a water supply, and the fire department was going door-to-door, filling containers. Getting in and out of town was also difficult; by Friday, the Standing Bear Bridge to South Dakota had reopened, and there was one passable gravel road south of town. Nebraska 14, the main route south out of Niobrara, was so strewn with ice it was only open for emergency travel.

The damage was unprecedented, Stark said, and worse than they had originally expected. But that was before they’d heard the Spencer Dam had failed and even more water was headed their way…

The Spencer Dam was a flow-through hydroelectric dam, with garage-type doors that let water through, and Becker said it wasn’t known whether the doors had been open or closed at the time. They disappeared downstream, he said.

Its breach triggered immediate and long-term problems. It swept away a Holt County house just downstream, and authorities were still searching for its owner.

“On March 14th at around 5 in the morning the dam on the niobrara river south of Spencer NE was overtaken by flooding and ice jams. 2 days prior to this there was significant snow melting. 1 day prior there was all day rain measuring 1-1.5 inches. The ground was still frozen from recent below normal temperatures. All that water broke loose ice chunks the size of cars and trucks. The dam was no match for this extreme force. The dam and the dike were both destroyed. The water then washed out Hwy 281 and flooding many communities downstream.” — Birkel Dirtwork

And the force of the flow severed the supply of water to the north, in Boyd County. Many of its 2,000 residents relied on the pipeline from Holt County that was buried beneath the river. Now that it’s gone, they don’t have the water they need for drinking, for livestock, for flushing.

They received a truckload of bottled water Friday, enough to last maybe a day, said Doug Fox, Boyd County’s emergency management coordinator. They need more…

And Boyd County was struggling to stay connected with the rest of the state. The failure of Spencer Dam took out a pair of routes over the Niobrara River, and the only ways out of Boyd County were north into South Dakota or west into Keya Paha County, Fox said.

Nebraska Rivers Shown on the Map: Beaver Creek, Big Blue River, Calamus River, Dismal River, Elkhorn River, Frenchman Creek, Little Blue River, Lodgepole Creek, Logan Creek, Loup River, Medicine Creek, Middle Loup River, Missouri River, Niobrara River, North Fork Big Nemaha River, North Loup River, North Platte River, Platte River, Republican River, Shell Creek, South Loup River, South Platte River, White River and Wood River. Nebraska Lakes Shown on the Map: Harlan County Lake, Hugh Butler Lake, Lake McConaughy, Lewis and Clark Lake and Merritt Reservoir. Map credit: Geology.com

Mississippi River flood control infrastructure worsens flooding

Created by Imgur user Fejetlenfej , a geographer and GIS analyst with a ‘lifelong passion for beautiful maps,’ it highlights the massive expanse of river basins across the country – in particular, those which feed the Mississippi River, in pink.

From Wired (Adam Rogers):

Basically, the Mississippi meanders. Sometimes the river curves around so tightly that it just pinches off, cutting across the peninsula and leaving the bigger curve high, if not dry. That parenthesis of water alongside the main channel is an oxbow. In a flood, water churns up chunks of sediment and spreads into the oxbow. When the flood waters recede, the layer of coarse sediment sinks to the oxbow’s bottom, where it remains.

So Muñoz’s team humped their pontoon boat all the way from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to three oxbows whose birthdates they knew—one from about 1500, one from 1722, and one from 1776—and jammed pipe into the lakebed with a concrete mixer. “It vibrates so hard, your hands fall asleep,” Muñoz says. “And then you have 300 or 400 pounds of mud you’re trying to get back up.” But it worked.

The cores were a map of time, with today at the top and the oxbow’s birthday at the bottom. In between: A peak of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 marked 1963, when humans started testing nuclear bombs. Using technique called optically stimulated luminescence to date, roughly, when a layer was last exposed to sunlight, they spotted classic floods, like 2011, which caused $3.2 billion in damages, and 1937, which required the largest rescue deployment the US Coast Guard had ever undertaken.

The important part, though, was that the characteristics of the layers for floods they had numbers on could tell them about the magnitude of floods they didn’t. They got 1851, 1543, and on and on…

AFTER A PARTICULARLY devastating flood in 1927—637,000 people lost their homes, perhaps up to 1,000 killed, $14 billion in period-adjusted damage—human beings deployed the US Army Corps of Engineers to wage all-out war on nature to protect industry, farms, and trade. People tried to warn the government even as construction began on the Mississippi’s infrastructure—channelization, dredging, dams in the upper stretch, and along the middle and lower levees, concrete mats along the banks called revetments, and gates.

“All that increases the amount of water and the speed that water goes during a flood. What we’re saying is, we can’t explain the increase we’re seeing with climate alone,” Muñoz says. “But for the first time, we can go back further, to a state in which the river wasn’t dominated by human activities. We can really show that the way the river behaves today is not natural.”

Even that look at the prelapsarian Mississippi may not change much. Warnings that flood control would lead to uncontrolled floods date back to at least 1852, when a famous engineer named Charles Ellet warned in a report to Congress that the whole idea was going to lead to disaster. Yet the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River and Tributaries Project remains in full, multi-billion-dollar effect. (Representatives for the Corps of Engineers did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Now, Muñoz’s inferential datasets don’t convince every river researcher. Bob Criss, a hydrogeologist at Washington University at St. Louis, says he doesn’t completely buy Muñoz’s team’s particle-size correlations and tree-ring cell biology. “It’s just a bunch of voodoo and sound bites,” Criss says. “I certainly don’t object to his conclusion. But I don’t think it’s robust.”

Criss definitely does buy the idea that engineering has made flooding worse, though. He says straight-ahead numbers like stage measurement (the height of the river) are enough to tell you that. Levees upriver send more water downriver. Revetments move that water faster. What might have been slow-spreading floodwaters when they were unconstrained turn into neighborhood-destroying mini-tsunamis when they burst all at once from behind failing levees…

And [Victor] Baker buys what Muñoz has come up with. “Levees protect against little floods. If you have a super-big flood that exceeds the capacity of the levee, the levees make that worse.” he says. There have been bigger floods than people remember—but the landscape recorded them. And if humans learn to play those recordings back, maybe we can find a new way to get ready for the waters yet to come.

Tom’s of Maine to pony up $1 million for water supply protection

From Environmental Leader (Jennifer Hermes):

Personal-care product company Tom’s of Maine will donate a million dollars to preserve and restore the nation’s water supply by working with the Nature Conservancy on a three out of four possible projects. Why three of four potentials? The company is asking the public to vote for their favorite water protection project. the top three will receive $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000 in funding, in addition to a guaranteed base level of support for each.

Remaining funds from Tom’s of Maine will go to support the Conservancy’s North American freshwater program, including on-the-ground projects along rivers and in river basins as well as water use and management projects to ensure that more of our natural waterways are protected.

Potential project areas include:

  • The Mississippi River Basin: Restoring key floodplains to reduce nutrient pollution in a basin that covers (or drains) 41% of the US;
  • East Coast Dam Removal: Freeing miles of river from Maine to Maryland by removing dams and improving habitat connections;
  • Sustainable Rivers Program: Working with the Army Corps of Engineers to better balance what people and rivers need to thrive;
  • The Colorado River Basin: Restoring and protecting water supplies.
  • The Colorado River Basin covers areas of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and irrigates nearly 4 million acres of cropland in the US and Mexico. It also supplies hydropower plants that generate more than 10 billion kilowatt-hours annually, according to the USGS. Like many areas of the country, the river basin suffers from supply and demand imbalances. The USGS is conducting a reclamation study that will define the extent of those imbalances and develop and analyze strategies to resolve those imbalances under a range of conditions that could occur during the next 50 years.

    @WaltonFamilyFdn Commits $35 million to America’s Great Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Here’s the release from the Walton Family Foundation (Justin Kenney):

    $35 million investment will support urgent restoration priorities in the Colorado River Basin and Mississippi River Delta

    The Walton Family Foundation (WFF) announced investments totaling $35 million to support the restoration and long-term health of the Colorado River Basin and the Mississippi River Delta. These investments are part of a larger five-year strategy to preserve healthy, flowing rivers and sustain the farmers, fishermen, businesses, families and wildlife that depend on them.

    “The Colorado and the Mississippi are two of our greatest rivers, and they and the communities that depend on them are under serious threats,” said Rob Walton, board member and chair of the environment committee for WFF. “We are at a critical inflection point – the decisions made in the next few years will determine the long-term environmental and economic viability of both of these regions.”

    Grants included in the investments announced today will support coalitions that include National Wildlife Federation, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana in the Mississippi River delta; American Rivers, Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in the Colorado River basin; and Environmental Defense Fund and National Audubon Society in both regions.

    Colorado River Basin

    WFF has dedicated $20 million over the next two years in an effort to create a more flexible, effective water management system in the Colorado River Basin and improve the overall health of the Colorado River. The lower basin was recently named the most endangered river in the nation by the conservation group American Rivers. The Colorado River is indispensable to the prosperity of the Southwest. It provides water to almost 40 million people in several of the country’s fastest-growing cities. It irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmland, with agriculture and animal production from counties served by Colorado River water resulting in upward of $5 billion in sales.

    “Water management is an important and pressing issue for the state of Arizona, and one that has been a top priority,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said. “It impacts our economy, our quality of life, our environment and our ability to continue to grow and thrive. This significant investment will amplify and expand efforts underway along the Colorado River.”

    “Coloradans know the importance of protecting our precious rivers and streams. Water is essential to our western way of life,” said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. “The Walton Family Foundation’s investment aligns with the goals of the Colorado Water Plan in ensuring water security, promoting sustainability, supporting agriculture and more. This investment is an example of the collaboration necessary to find pragmatic solutions to these issues and make sure these rivers are healthy for generations to come.”

    In the face of drastic water shortages, policymakers, water managers and others in the region agree about the urgent need for water management reform. The foundation’s efforts focus on channeling this shared urgency to achieve important agreements that address ongoing water shortages and provide long-term solutions for the benefit of people and the river.

    In the Lower Colorado River, WFF-funded efforts support:

    Renewing the binational Colorado River agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to improve water management in both countries,
    Ensuring California meets it commitment to fund and achieve mitigation to the shrinking Salton Sea, and
    Partner with Arizona to manage its scarce water resources through pro-active conservation programs.
    In the Upper Colorado River, WFF-funded efforts support:

    Securing long-term public funding to protect and improve river health and secure the reliability of Colorado’s water supply, and
    Advancing the development of an Upper Basin market-based water bank program that benefits rivers.
    Core to all of this work, the foundation supports on-the-ground restoration of river health in “proof point” tributaries including the San Pedro River, Verde River, the Escalante River, the Gila River and the Colorado River Delta.

    What others leaders are saying about the importance of a sustainable Colorado River:

    Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

    “Water is one of our most important resources out here in the west, but it’s a limited one. The time is now to secure our water future, and it will take collaboration and innovation to protect assets like the Colorado River Basin and the livelihoods of the Coloradans it supports. Investments in the health, resiliency and sustainability of our precious water resources ensures our water security and the future of the Colorado River.”

    Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community

    “Working on a sustainable Colorado River is fostering a cultural, spiritual, and meaningful awakening of our culture. This announcement is welcome news at a critical juncture in the effort to protect the Colorado River and secure our water future.”

    Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton

    “Forward-thinking partnerships are essential to continuing the long-standing Arizona tradition of advancing smart water policy. The Walton Family Foundation’s significant and meaningful commitment to Colorado River system conservation shows how we can work together to safeguard against climate change and the continued drought that is directly impacting Lake Mead.”

    Mississippi River Delta

    WFF will dedicate approximately $15 million over two years to support restoration projects that will stem the devastating land loss crippling the coast of Louisiana, where every hour a football field worth of land disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. The loss of wetlands and coastal habitat has left the region vulnerable to storms and rising sea levels.

    “New Orleans is a coastal city whose future depends on fixing decades of damage due to the cutting of canals, subsidence, and erosion,” said Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu. “We’re at an even greater risk due to sea level rise. Repairing what has been lost is not just important for Louisiana, but our country’s economy and security depends on our ports to transport goods, our seafood to eat and our oil and gas to fuel the nation. Together, we can build a better future for our coast, our people and the nation.”

    The combination of bipartisan support for science-based solutions and funding for restoration means the region is ripe for meaningful, lasting change. The foundation’s investments will capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by supporting three core efforts:

  • Advance priority restoration projects and programs from the recently approved Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, with a target construction date of 2020;
  • Protect and maximize available restoration funds, develop innovative funding mechanisms and ensure funds are spent on restoration projects; and
  • Address future challenges through advances in science, modelling and mapping capabilities.
  • These efforts will ensure meaningful restoration of wetlands, oyster reefs, barrier islands and other coastal habitats that sustain the region’s critical seafood and tourism industries, and protects the city and port of New Orleans from devastating storms. The coast is home to a $34 billion tourism industry and 40 percent of all seafood harvested in the lower 48 states comes from the Gulf.

    About the Walton Family Foundation and its Environment Initiatives

    At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe that conservation solutions that make economic sense stand the test of time. We work to achieve lasting change by creating new and unexpected partnerships among conservation, business and community interests to build durable solutions to important problems.

    Through its environment initiatives, the foundation is investing in two of the most important conservation issues of our time: restoring the health of the oceans through sustainable fisheries and preserving functioning rivers and the quality and availability of fresh water they provide. This work spans four initiatives: Oceans, Colorado River, Mississippi River and Coastal Gulf of Mexico. Learn more at: http://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.

    From The Denver Post (Ethan Millman):

    This initial investment represents the first of what the foundation said will amount to more than $100 million by 2020. The foundation has also pledged $15 million to support the restoration of the Mississippi River Delta…

    “The Colorado River basin is arguably one of the most important in the country, if not in the world,” Rice said. “And we use more than the river provides. We need to figure out how to do more with less water.”

    The $20 million will be allocated toward different groups across the upper and lower river basins, including advocacy organizations such as American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation.

    Ted Kowalski, Colorado River initiative lead for the Walton Family Foundation , said helping sustain the river is crucial to supporting both the environment and the economy.

    “If you look at the last 17 years, we’ve seen a remarkable drought,” Kowalski said. “It’s the longest and worst since the turn of the 20th century. It’s one of the worst we’ve ever seen. If we were to see a drought like 2012, the reservoirs would continue to decline.”

    […]

    While the region would take a huge economic hit, Kowalski said the environmental cost would be worse, and work in the region should be about preventing these problems rather than combating them head on.

    “The environment would be the biggest loser,” Kowalski said. “We want to hold hydrology not in the throes, but in advance of this crisis.”

    Morgan Conservation District’s 62nd Annual Meeting, February 9th, 2017

    View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)
    View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)

    From the Morgan Conservation District via The Fort Morgan Times (Angela Werner):

    Morgan Conservation District’s 62nd annual meeting will be held on February 9th.

    It will be held at the Fort Morgan Home Plate Restaurant, 19873 U.S. Hwy. 34. Breakfast will be at 8 a.m. and the meeting will start at 9 a.m. The cost of the meeting will be $25 in advance, and that will cover the annual meeting, annual membership in Morgan Conservation District, and free breakfast that morning.

    If you do not RSVP in advance, and show up on the day of the meeting, please be advised that the cost will be the same, however breakfast will not be free, due to our needing to order the food in advance. Our keynote speakers, Bill Hammerich and Andrew Neuhart.

    Bill Hammerich has served as the CEO of Colorado Livestock Association (CLA) for the past fourteen years. He grew up on a cattle and farming operation in Western Colorado and he attended CSU where he graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics. Following graduation, he began working with Monfort of Colorado, then Farr Feeders and was with the Sparks Companies before joining CLA in 2002.

    His time spent in the cattle feeding industry provided him not only with an understanding of how to feed cattle, but also the importance of protecting and sustaining the environment in which one operates.

    Bill and his wife Sabrina live in Severance, Colorado and have two grown children, Justin and Jessica, and four grandsons.

    Andrew Neuhart completed both a B.S. in Natural Resource Management and an M.S. in Watershed Science at CSU. After spending two years assisting in precision farming studies in the San Luis Valley for the USDA Soil, Plant and Nutrient Research team, Andrew went to work for the State of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division. For 9 years with the WQCD, Andrew led a Permitting Unit for discharge permits under the Clean Water Act, for both industrial and domestic wastewater treatment facilities. Working for Brown and Caldwell over the last 4 years, Andrew assists clients with regulatory issues under the Clean Water Act, and has been working with the Ag Task Force, part of the Colorado Monitoring Framework, to get the word out regarding nutrient regulations and their impacts to agricultural operations.

    Mr. Hammerich and Mr. Neuhart will be speaking about Regulation 85.

    Regulation 85 establishes requirements for organizations holding a NPDES permit and with the potential to discharge either nitrogen or phosphorus to begin planning for nutrient treatment based on treatment technology and monitoring both effluents and streams for nitrogen and phosphorus.

    The data from these efforts is designed to better characterize nutrient sources, characterize nutrient conditions and effects around the state and to help inform future regulatory decisions regarding nutrients. Please come to the meeting and learn more from our very knowledgeable keynote speakers!

    Please RSVP as soon as possible to Angela at morganconservationdistrict@gmail.com or call 970-427-3362. Space is limited.

    “It was essentially a winter flash flood on a continental-scale river” — Robert Criss

    December 2015 precipitation in the Mississippi River Basin via Weather.com.
    December 2015 precipitation in the Mississippi River Basin via Weather.com.

    From Science Daily:

    …only a day after the flood on the lower Meramec peaked, water levels on the Mississippi at St. Louis were the third-highest ever recorded. A few days later, record flood stages were recorded downstream at Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Thebes, Ill.

    Why was the flooding so bad? Most news reports blamed it on the heavy rain, but Robert Criss, PhD, professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, said there was more to the flood than the rain.

    “I think there was significant magnification of the flood levels on the Meramec by recent developments near the river,” he said. “Sure it rained a lot, but what happened here cannot be explained by the rainfall alone.”

    The flood on the middle Mississippi River, in turn, was remarkable for its short duration and the time of year. “It was essentially a winter flash flood on a continental-scale river,” Criss said. “The Mississippi has been so channelized and leveed close to St. Louis that it now responds like a much smaller river.”

    In the February issue of the Journal of Earth Science, Criss and visiting scholar Mingming Luo of the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, China, take a close look at data for the New Year’s flood, treating it as a giant natural experiment that allowed them to test their understanding of changing river dynamics.

    “Flooding is becoming more chaotic and unpredictable, more frequent and more severe,” Criss said. “Additional changes to this overbuilt river system will only aggravate flooding.

    “In the meantime,” he said, “inaccurate Federal Emergency Management Agency flood frequencies based on the assumption that today’s river will behave as it has in the past greatly underestimate our real flood risk and lead to inappropriate development in floodways and floodplains.”

    mississippibasin

    World Resources Institute: World’s 18 Most Water-Stressed Rivers #ColoradoRiver

    watertressbymostpopulousriverbasinsviaworldresourceinstitute

    From the World Resources Institute (Andrew Maddocks/Paul Reig):

    The world’s 100 most-populated river basins are indispensable resources for billions of people, companies, farms, and ecosystems. But many of these river basins are also increasingly at risk. As water demand from irrigated agriculture, industrialization, and domestic users explodes, major rivers on several continents are becoming so depleted that they sometimes fail to reach their ocean destinations. Add climate change, nutrient and chemical pollution, and physical alterations like dams and other infrastructure development to the mix and it’s clear that many communities rely on water resources that face an increasingly risky future.

    WRI’s Aqueduct project recently evaluated, mapped, and scored stresses on water supplies in the 100 river basins with the highest populations, 100 largest river basins, and 180 nations. We found that 18 river basins— flowing through countries with a collective $US 27 trillion in GDP —face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. This means that more than 80 percent of the water naturally available to agricultural, domestic, and industrial users is withdrawn annually—leaving businesses, farms, and communities vulnerable to scarcity…

    Decision-makers in many of world’s water-stressed basins have attempted to put management plans in place—with mixed results. The United States’ Colorado River is a prime example of a plan that, while well-intentioned, may ultimately be unsustainable. Starting in Colorado and running 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River is the 14th most stressed among the world’s most populated river basins, and the sixth most stressed if ranked by size. More than 30 million people depend on it for water. The seven states receiving its water comprised 19 percent of the United States’ total GDP in 2010.

    Because of its naturally arid setting—and due to its large and growing number of users and resulting high level of baseline water stress—the Colorado has become one of the most physically and legally managed rivers in the world. It is also under serious duress, exacerbated by a decades-long drought. This imbalance between supply and demand means that the river often runs dry before it reaches the Pacific Ocean—posing significant problems for wildlife, ecosystems, and communities that depend on it.

    The Colorado River is an example of a basin where natural water stress is already severe. The complex web of infrastructure and governance structures around the river was, in a sense, created to ensure predictable, steady water supplies in a stressed region. On the other hand, that same development has driven increasing demands for limited supplies. Aqueduct’s country and river basin rankings deliberately do not include the effects of such extensive management, instead focusing on objective measures of underlying hydrological conditions. But the overall picture is clear: Even the most-established, iron-clad management systems start to crumble under increasing scarcity and stress…

    What Is Water Stress?

    Water stress is the ratio of total water withdrawals to available renewable supply in an area. In high-stress areas, 40 percent or more of the available supply is withdrawn every year. In extremely high-stress areas, that number goes up to 80 percent or higher. A higher percentage means more water users are competing for limited supplies. See the high and extremely high-stress areas highlighted in red and dark red on the maps.

    More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.