It’s Time to Save the Colorado River

By Kim Jordan and Casey Sheahan

We’ve seen enough, heard enough, and now we’re taking action.

The Colorado River begins high in Rocky Mountain National Park along the jagged edge of the Continental Divide as a sparkling river fed by pure mountain snowmelt from 13,000-foot peaks. As the river cascades downstream along its 1,450-mile journey to the Sea of Cortez, human populations have so used and abused it that by journey’s end, it is little more than a muddy, polluted ditch, often drained completely dry.

Five trillion gallons of water – that’s the average flow of the Colorado – and our society has taken it all.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict climate change could dry and drain the two largest reservoirs on the river – Powell and Mead – resulting in devastating economic hardship for people in the Southwest United States. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proclaimed that a 20% chance exists that within two years the water level in Lake Mead could drop so low that serious water and electric shortages will occur in Las Vegas.

Four endangered species of fish in the Colorado River teeter on the brink of extinction.

The environment is threatened; the economy is threatened; people and communities are now threatened.

In 2010, we launched a philanthropic partnership dedicated to trying to help save the Colorado River. The partnership includes seven businesses and foundations that have united to donate funds to nonprofit environmental groups working in the Colorado River basin.

The Save the Colorado campaign will donate funding totaling $500,000 through a granting cycle twice a year for three years – 2010, 2011, 2012 – that will focus on three programmatic areas: 1) raising public awareness about the threats to the river, 2) promoting water conservation in cities that use Colorado River water, and 3) addressing the threats, and potential mitigations, of past and future dams, diversions and reservoirs.

The philanthropic campaign includes business and foundation partners from the top of the Colorado River basin all the way to the bottom. Colorado partners include New Belgium Brewing, Aspen Snowmass Environment Foundation, Kenney Brothers Foundation and National Geographic Maps. California partners include OARS, Patagonia and Environment Now.

We are proud to bring this committed group of businesses and foundations together in a unique partnership to help save the river. The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American Southwest, and it is the lifeblood of the people and companies that thrive here. In one form or another, all of us use Colorado River water, and because we use it, we want to try to help save it.

The Colorado River quenches the thirst and waters the lawns of 30 million people from Denver to San Diego and beyond. In addition, the river’s water grows crops in Southern California that help feed the entire nation. There is no doubt that the Colorado is a working river that will need to keep working to sustain our society.

But it’s equally true that the river is an extraordinary environmental, recreational and economic amenity for rafters, kayakers, fishermen, bird-watchers and visitors from its beginnings in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park to its end near the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge along the Mexican border. Dozens of local, state and federal parks and recreation areas line the river’s ecosystem along its journey, including the granddaddy of them all, Grand Canyon National Park.

We need to keep using the river’s water to quench our thirst and grow our crops, but we have to find a way to keep the river alive as well. Environmental groups throughout the basin are working to do that, and our campaign will help support them.

The Colorado River desperately needs protection; the more difficult work of restoration needs to begin now. We want to be clear that we don’t have all the answers, nor can we fix all of the problems, but we know in our hearts and minds that it is immensely important that we begin.

Please visit SaveTheColorado.org to learn more about threats to the river and how you can help the philanthropic partnership we have put together to save it.

Look, listen and then please join us in taking action.