Ninety-eight years ago, Congressman Edward Taylor’s deep sense of pride for his home state of Colorado inspired him to campaign for the renaming of his state’s mighty river. At the time, the Colorado River that we know today was called the Grand River and the Colorado River referred to a waterway in Utah beginning at the convergence of the Green River from Wyoming and the Grand River from Colorado. Taylor made the renaming of the Grand River a personal cause, rechristening the Grand River the Colorado River and creating one colossal waterway that began in Colorado and flowed into Utah and beyond. On July 25, 1921, Congress conceded and the Colorado River officially became one of America’s great waterways.
As Coloradans, we’re honored that this powerful and life-giving river bears our name. We come together each year on July 25 — the anniversary of the day Congress officially declared the Colorado River as we know it — united by the same pride for the river that fueled Congressman Taylor. Things are much different now than when Taylor was around. We have to manage our water amidst warmer temperatures and growing demand, constantly looking for ways to be more efficient with our water use as our climate continues to get hotter and drier. This year, to celebrate the Colorado River and all it gives us, we joined community members throughout the basin in renewed appreciation for the river that supports our families, our economy, and our environment. We spoke to a few of the millions of individuals who depend on the Colorado River for their livelihoods. Our conversations focused on one recurring theme — the irreplaceable value of this water source.
Over the course of three generations, Brian Wong’s family has been able to grow a single crop into a 4,500 acre farm by relying on steady irrigation from Colorado River water. But after years of continued overuse and a new threat of megadroughts looming overhead in the Southwest, Brian finds himself “fighting to preserve the Colorado River for future generations.” To him and to his family, “every drop of water is precious.”
Agriculture in the Colorado River basin is often more than just a business–it’s a family tradition. Like Brian, Velvet Button and her family depend on water–producing alfalfa, hay, and beans in the Gila River Indian Community. As a young girl, Velvet kept seeds in her jewelry box as a reminder of the essential resources the Gila and Colorado rivers cultivate. For her home and her family, Velvet says, “water is everything.”
Tuscon baker Don Guerra transforms the locally-sourced heritage grains grown by farmers like Brian and Velvet into bread. In speaking about his community, Don explains that “our nutrition — and our survival — would not be possible without the Colorado River.”
For Arizonans like Don, the availability of water depends, in large part, on agreements between the Upper and Lower Basins. These compromises have historically been fraught with tension between scientists, politicians, and civilians but experts argue that these deals have historically rested on inaccurate assumptions of water levels and unclear designations of resources. But when collaboration works, we see clear progress towards conservation. For example, this year’s efforts by a variety of Arizona water users–including indigenous communities and state officials–to implement DCP cuts stored an additional 236,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead.
Our mighty river irrigates nearly 4 million acres, producing almost 15% of America’s crops and 13% of our livestock and serving over 40 million people, including individuals like Brian, Velvet, and Don. It helps fuel Colorado’s booming outdoor industry that generates $62 billion annually and 511,000 jobs for our state. It makes it possible for those like Brian, Velvet, and Don to do what they do.
In honor of Colorado River Day, we celebrate our river and recognize those that depend upon it, but we also call for action. We need legislators and voters to commit to fully funding the Colorado Water Plan, which is made up of a series of critical actions that synthesize water priorities and facilitate protections for our environment and economy. We need statewide collaboration on water conservation. And we need innovative strategies to save our river.