Experts on Camera

Dr. John “Jack” Schmidt: Colorado River drought crisis

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The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people and millions of acres of agricultural land—and it’s drying up.

On Thursday, April 20, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. John “Jack” Schmidt, the director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. He discussed topics including: the causes of the current crisis, including overuse and drought; the river’s role in providing water and hydroelectricity in the West, and crop irrigation for the nation’s food supply; the heavy snowfall during the 2022-23 winter, and how much it might replenish the river’s reservoirs; research-based predictions for the future of the Colorado River; and conflicting plans to cut water use: one proposed by California, and the other proposed jointly by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.


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JACK SCHMIDT: My name is Jack Schmidt. I’m the Janet Quinney Lawson chair in Colorado River studies. I’m a professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University. I began life as a fluvial geomorphologist, studying the physical behavior of rivers. As time has gone on, I’ve evolved in my work to consider more broadly environmental management of rivers, restoration of rivers, and management of the water supply and how water supply management affects rivers.


Interview with SciLine

What is the cause of the crisis in the Colorado River?


JACK SCHMIDT: The ultimate cause of the problem is that runoff from the Colorado River’s watershed has declined significantly in a warming climate. Today’s runoff in the 21st century—for the last 22 years—has been approximately 15% less than the average runoff in the mid and late 20th century, and has been about 32% less than runoff in the early 20th century, when the Colorado River Compact was negotiated. That ultimate cause is ultimately related to carbon loading in the atmosphere, a warming atmosphere—which leads to a longer growing season in the mountains, rising elevations of treeline, drier soils, sublimation of the snowpack—that all leads to less water getting into the river system. The proximate cause is that human society uses more water than comes into the system. So, the proximate cause is that we as a human society have not been able to reduce our use, consistent with the decrease in the available supply or the runoff. And when you use more water than is the natural runoff, you drain the reservoirs to sustain higher use.

Why is this river so important to the American West, and to the rest of the country’s food supply?


JACK SCHMIDT: The American West is the most urbanized part of the United States, in the sense of the proportion of the population that lives in cities. And then we have isolated pockets of irrigated land. Those cities exist because we import water from distant sources to those cities. And irrigation occurs—or agriculture occurs because we have to irrigate our farm fields. So, both cities and agriculture are extremely dependent on supplemental water sources.

What cities depend on water from the Colorado River?


JACK SCHMIDT: That water either in total or in part sustains Southern California, one of the largest economic entities in the world, Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the United States, other large cities such as Tucson, Las Vegas, provides supplementary water very importantly to the Colorado Front Range cities of Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs, the Wasatch Front—including Salt Lake City—and supplemental and important flows to Albuquerque and Cheyenne.

There has been a lot of precipitation in recent months—how much might that replenish the river’s reservoirs?


JACK SCHMIDT: It’s extremely helpful—and, not but—and it is important to realize that Lake Mead and Lake Powell are the two largest reservoirs in the United States. So, if we keep using water at the same rate that we have used it on average through the 21st century, we would need four additional years just as wet as this year to refill Lake Powell and Lake Mead. I don’t think there’s any climate scientist who would project that would be the case. We’ll get a bumper great water year like this every once in a while—this year is highly unusual. But, this would have to become the new climatic normal for us to get us out of the jam we’re in.

What do research-based models predict for the future of the Colorado River?


JACK SCHMIDT: All models for climate project a continually and increasingly warm atmosphere. So, the vast majority of models predict continual decline in runoff and supply.

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