As climate change progresses along the Western Slope of Colorado, the flow of the Colorado River will begin to drastically change. There are already effects being seen such as severe drought and critically low water levels in reservoirs along the river . Water shortage affects not only the residents along the western slope but in other states like Arizona, California, and Nevada. With Colorado’s population expected to nearly double by 2050, water conservation efforts need to begin now .
The Federal Bureau of Reclamation is partnering with water authorities in Colorado, Nevada, California, and Arizona to fund an $11 million Colorado River System Conservation Program in attempts to find solutions to the challenges we will face in water supply and demand . This project affects millions of residents throughout the Colorado River watershed, especially those who rely on reservoirs further down river. For example, Lake Mead, the largest supply of water to Las Vegas, is only 48 feet above the uppermost intake pipe. If water levels fall below this pipe it cannot be drained by gravity through pipes and this water is essentially unusable . This means that the people and the economy of Las Vegas will suffer and will be forced to alter the lifestyle that is characteristic to Las Vegas.
As a social worker, I see more than just the lack of water for agriculture and recreation, I see the power shift that will control who has access to water and who does not. Colorado has been in a battle for water, dividing the Front Range and the Western Slope . The Front Range sees the Western Slope as water-rich and less populated compared to the fast-growing Front Range, however, the Garfield County commissioner Mike Samson says that the Western Slope has no more water to give. The Front Range uses 70% of the state’s water so the pressure to share water is enormous, coming from within the state as well as surrounding states .
Climate models predict that with rapidly increasing temperatures, the droughts will happen more quickly because water levels are already severely low . As the population also increases, the need for crop irrigation goes up but with less water available, states will have to find water elsewhere. The Colorado River System Conservation Program has begun a multi-state pilot program to see how typically irrigated fields will respond to leaving them fallow for a period of time to allow more water in the river systems .
The Carpenter Ranch outside of Steamboat Springs is one of these sites. By allowing for more water to be left in the Yampa River, it would support habitat but also allow for the reservoirs down river to be replenished . The results are obviously not from just the Carpenter Ranch but from a combination of five sites across the state as well as five sites in Wyoming. The ranch will be compensated for not using the water and the smaller harvest is a short term consequence of using less water. The long-term results will far outweigh the short-term losses in terms of water conservation and sustainability for the future .
The environmental justice movement will allow social workers to advocate for those most affected by the water shortage. People in poverty already have less access to clean, reliable water so when policy makers decide who gets water when, social workers can be there to make sure the voices of vulnerable populations are heard. Climate change is inevitable but when talking about how to deal with water shortages, changes in the landscapes, or how to alter recreational activities, we must remember that everyone has a right to accessible, clean water and the vulnerable populations cannot be left out of the conversations.
Colorado River Basin Photo credit: http://www.inkstain.net/fleck/2014/04/colorado-river-conservation-program/
 & The Hoover Dam photo credit: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/06/05/lake_mead_which_supplies_most_of_las_vegas_water_is_at_record_low_levels.html
Carpenter Ranch Photo credit: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/colorado/placesweprotect/carpenter-ranch.xml