The Colorado River system is near collapse, endangering the drinking water, electricity and agriculture that roughly 40 million people rely on. Not even this winter’s record precipitation is enough to balance the ledger after years of drought and overuse.

To mitigate the crisis, Arizona, California and Nevada agreed last week to cut their use of the Colorado River by over a third through 2026, according to the White House.  

With continued cuts on the horizon, how do those who rely on the Colorado River — including users in Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake River basins — learn to live with less? Thirst Gap, a six-episode podcast, follows this question on a journey down the Colorado River. Along the way, reporter Luke Runyon introduces listeners to the “people and places grappling with limited water supplies in the Colorado River watershed, and examines the trade-offs that come with learning to live with less water.”

WyoFile sat down with Runyon to discuss his reporting. 

The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

WyoFile: Wyoming has a stake in this crisis because our rivers feed the Colorado River, but you don’t visit Wyoming in this podcast. So, why should Wyomingites care about what’s happening downstream? Why should they listen?

Luke Runyon: One of the things that I wanted to get across doing the podcast is just how connected the whole watershed is. It can be easy for the finger-pointing to start quickly, where people in the Upper Basin point the finger down toward the Lower Basin, and the Lower Basin does the same thing towards the Upper Basin. In doing this project, my goal was to show how decisions that people make in different parts of the watershed have these ripple effects that go throughout the whole system. 

Wyoming is not a large user of the Colorado River by any means —  they’re one of the smallest — but this is where the water comes from. So look at the headwaters of the Green River. The Green is such an important tributary to the whole Colorado River system. So what’s happening in Wyoming affects people downstream and the demand for water downstream in California, Arizona and Mexico ripples all the way back up to Wyoming and Colorado where the snow falls and where the water comes from.

WF: Six months ago, WyoFile reported on record-low water levels at Flaming Gorge, the large reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border that helps maintain critical water levels hundreds of miles downstream at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

With this winter’s significant storms, those reservoirs are set to rise substantially. Why isn’t that record snowpack the solution to the Colorado River crisis?

LR: It is a lot of water and some reservoirs are going to have a boost — like Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell — but these issues are playing out over these longer timescales and that’s how you have to think of it. We’re looking at 10-year rolling averages for water supply and snowpack, and what we’ve seen is that there is a drying and warming trend happening in the whole Colorado River Basin. 

This is not something happening to us. We are part of the cause of the problem.

Luke runyon

The Southwest is getting warmer and drier, and even though that trend is happening in the background, you still can get years like this one where the snowpack was crazy high and you have all these photos from Utah of chairlifts being buried by snow drifts. You can have those years, but the trendline is still going towards warmer and drier.

Take recent history: we had 2020, 2021 and 2022, which were all drier than normal. That means that Lake Powell was not refilling any of those years. It was being depleted. These reservoirs are supposed to be like a buffer through the dry times and when the dry times last for three years, you’re lowering that buffer quite a bit. Then you have one good year. It helps, but it doesn’t fix the problem, the problem still exists. If we get another string of dry years, it’s going to be back in a very dire place very quickly. 

With wetter weather this year I can already feel interest in this waning. I’ve covered the river now since 2017 and this happens all the time, where it’s dry, the reservoirs are in crisis and the number of headlines about the river goes through the roof. The New York Times and The Washington Post are covering it as this daily story and then you get wet weather and the attention on the people who are making the decisions goes away. People’s interest sort of starts to fade a bit. So what I hope people understand is this is still very present. Yes, we had one wet winter, but these problems are not going away. They are persistent. It would take six years of winters like this one to fix this problem, and that’s highly unlikely. So we’re going to have to have these hard conversations for the next several years to figure out this problem.

WF: What makes this a crisis? And who’s in charge of defining that? 

LR: One of the features of the whole Colorado River system is that there is no governmental agency that oversees the whole river’s management. It’s sort of this amalgamation of agreements and states and treaties, and the federal government plays a role too. 

So it’s a community of people that follow this rulebook that we’ve written in order to manage the river, which is why it can be so difficult to take action to actually solve the problem because there are so many players involved. 

What you have is a bunch of representatives from the individual states that use the river — with their own interests and their own water needs — and they’re all negotiating with each other to figure out a way forward out of this crisis. It’s kind of a messy system, but state leaders like the autonomy of the system we have right now and they don’t want a big overarching agency coming in and telling them what they need to be doing. 

But it also has drawbacks because lots of perspectives get left out of the conversation. Tribal communities have for a long time said that this is not an equitable situation. The environment very often gets left out, because some states have strong laws when it comes to environmental protection and others don’t, and so that’s this whole interplay as well. So it’s kind of a messy system, but that’s what we have right now.

Luke Runyon interviewing boaters on a beach along the Colorado River in Utah. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

WF: The podcast drew my attention to how important the Colorado River is for the entire nation because we all rely on it for food. 

LR: Agriculture is the single largest use of the river’s water. Much of that is in the lower basin, in the Imperial Valley in California, in and around Yuma, Arizona, and even in Mexico — the Mexicali Valley uses quite a bit of water from the Colorado River for its agriculture. 

So if we turned off the spigot to farms in that area, our diets would probably have to change in the rest of the United States — particularly in the wintertime because a lot of winter vegetables — like romaine lettuce — come from the Yuma Valley in Arizona. There are sprawling citrus orchards that are in that area. One time I was in the Imperial Valley and there were just fields of brussel sprouts. So there’s a lot of food that gets grown in this area of the country and a lot of times people question, ‘Why are we growing all this stuff in the desert?’ Well, it’s highly productive farm ground. The growing season in Wyoming is quite short. In Yuma, Arizona, you can basically grow 12 months out of the year. You talk to farmers who are growing alfalfa hay and they’re getting like 12 or 13 cuttings of alfalfa hay during a growing season. It’s tremendously productive farm ground because it’s sunny and hot. As long as you have the water supply there you can grow a ton of crops in the Lower Colorado River region. 

WF: A lot of this series is devoted to what the Colorado River crisis means for the people who rely on it — for hydroelectric power, agricultural production, drinking water, cush lawns — but what does it mean for the flora and non-human fauna who depend on the river?

LR: This is the focus of the last episode. It’s centered on the Colorado River Delta. One fact that a lot of people know about the Colorado River is that it doesn’t reach the ocean anymore and that’s because of our over-reliance on it in both the U.S. and in Mexico. The final 100 miles of the river is mostly dry and that’s because there’s a dam at the U.S.-Mexico border that diverts Mexico’s share of the river towards agriculture and cities in Mexico. 

For me, it’s always been the starkest visual of what our over-reliance on the river looks like. This used to be a massive estuary, where this freshwater river was meeting the ocean. This is in the Sea of Cortez, where the high tide would come up against the river, and there’d be a surfable tidal bore. This used to be a really amazing estuary and it’s now just this massive dried-out salt flat and that’s such a tremendous loss. 

What we talk about in that last episode is that there are efforts to bring some water back. It’s very difficult to do — both to find the money to do it and to figure out the logistics of how to bring water back to the river channel there — but those efforts are happening. We go to some of the restoration sites. What they’re finding is that as soon as you start putting water back into the river channel, everything rebounds. You get cottonwoods and mesquite trees, and there are beavers that have returned, and coyotes and birds. So that’s really heartening to see that at least in like some small patches of the delta some life is returning.

WF: Is a future where the Colorado River is not in crisis a possibility? 

LR: I would hope so — this is really the thrust of the whole podcast. The tagline for it was “learning to live with less on the Colorado River” and I think the idea is that we as a society have some agency in this whole crisis.  

This is not something happening to us. We are part of the cause of the problem. If we can learn how to live with less water, whether that’s for agriculture or for cities, then we can start to restore some of these areas and the impacts won’t be as great. We just have to make some very hard choices and some hard decisions about what’s the best use of the limited water that we have.

WF: You get out and you talk to people who are living in the midst of those hard choices. How did getting out talking to people from farmers to boaters to landscapers to Navajo hydrologists change your thinking about the Colorado River’s challenges? 

LR: There are a few different takeaways. One, it’s not like there’s one problem and one solution to this whole situation. What’s playing out on the Navajo Nation is very different from what’s playing out on a farm in western Colorado and that’s different from what’s playing out in suburban neighborhoods of the big cities in the West. So for me, it was helpful to remember that it’s a multi-faceted thing that’s playing out in so many different lives in different ways. This means our approaches to actually fixing it, or addressing it, are going to have to be very different to address all of those different needs. 

The other thing that I took away was that sometimes it can be very easy as a journalist to get trapped in the tit-for-tat of the negotiations between all of the states. The political intrigue of the river can be very seductive. It’s like, ‘Ooh, the states, they want to fight and nitpick each other.’ And yes, the decisions and agreements that the states are coming up with are very important and we need to devote some time to covering that but what helps people actually understand these issues is meeting people who are grappling with them in real time. 

Tennessee Jane Watson is WyoFile's deputy managing editor. She was a 2020 Nieman Abrams Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism and Wyoming Public Radio's education reporter. She lives in Laramie. Contact...

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  1. Israel’s “Reverse Osmosis” desalination process effectively supports the water needs of around seven million people, including its agricultural production. (Reverse Osmosis is also used onboard large marine vessels, both military and civilian.) California could aid its own interests and reduce the pressure on upstream resources implementing this technology. California just needs the will to do it. But it’s obvious California won’t do this until pressured into this technology, no pun intended, by upstream providers. I don’t want to write a book about this, but remember, the next time you read or hear the statement, “There’s a water shortage;” Earth hasn’t lost a single drop of water ever since it had a gravitational field!!!! It’s just not as conveniently located as it was before the over -subscription of historic sources.

  2. Thanks I look forward to the series about this resource. I find these “arguments” about water use informative as they mirror the arguments about pipelines that move energy around the country. If certain users capture this water and end up making/growing products for the export markets, while the rest of the upstream US users make sacrifices then things get muddled and people get angry.

    I would gladly give up watering non-natives in Wyoming if I could be assured that would benefit me long term with sustainable commodities grown in areas where that water would be more beneficial. Same with energy, if my curtailing natural gas use benefits me instead of exporting to the overseas LNG customer/overseas owner then I am more likely to comply with use restrictions.

    I really do think we, the USA, needs a national zoning discussion about what things should get done where with contingencies in place to deal with climate change. Biden’s 30/30 plan is a good place to start.

  3. We spend our winters in casa Grande Arizona. In my opinion Arizona hasn’t done much of anything except bitch about not having all the water they want. Arizona hasn’t thought about conservation of water. Still grass everywhere, golf courses, man made lakes, still growing alfalfa, cotton, and corn. Need to feed all the cows in the dairy’s. Makes no sense to me.

    1. At least Arizona is wanting to do something about it, Utah uses the 2nd most water in the Upper basin zone, and they arent reducing at all.

  4. water is life.

    i just can’t help but wonder if the roll’s were reversed.
    the sanctuary states had a excess amount of water & let that water flow down stream to wyoming ?

    plate tectonics & elevation has given wyoming the ability to share it most precious resource, water, to those sanctuary states to keep the pool’s full,golf courses green,& all those million’s of illegal aliens hydrated !

    1. While an obtusely written comment, it has some truths. Those wanting the Feds to give up claims to Wyoming land know that controlling this state’s water would lead to controlling the rest of those receiving water. It is also pretty clear that Wyoming’s “leaders” would attempt to use that mallet to extract what they believe those other states should do with people fleeing strife in their own countries, much of that strife caused by US policies.

      Paul is correct on the geology with regards to water collection and distribution but that feature also played a role in why Wyoming was admitted to the Union near the end and is also why other State’s water rights supersede ours. Paul is typical of many Wyomingites that want to abandon the rule of law to take what is rightfully ours. We really do need some civics lessons if we are going to keep our Republic.