Most Endangered River in the U.S.: The Colorado


Most Endangered River in the U.S.: The Colorado
American Rivers released its annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report this week, listing the Colorado River at at the top. In seven states and two countries, demand for the Colorado’s water is outstripping its supply.

Discussion Ideas:

  • The Colorado is endangered because demand for its water is greater than its supply. Can students name some activities that put demands put on the Colorado River?
    • Agriculture: The Colorado River is a major source of irrigation throughout the seven states through which it flows. Crops of the southwest include hay, cotton, lettuce, and citrus fruit.
    • Industry: Businesses from factories to food-processing plants depend on water from the Colorado. Water may be used for industrial sanitation, manufacturing, and employee use.
    • Health: Millions of people rely on the Colorado’s water for drinking, hygiene, and cooking.
    • Recreation: Boaters, swimmers, and even gardeners rely on the Colorado.
    • Energy: Dams on the Colorado convert the river’s hydroelectric energy to electricity. Millions of homes, businesses, hospitals, and schools need this electricity to operate.
    • Work: The agricultural industry, the manufacturing industry, the public health industry, the energy industry, and the recreation industry employ millions of workers.
    • Environment: The Colorado is part of riparian (freshwater) ecosystems from the Rocky Mountains to the Sonoran Desert. Millions of plants and animals, including endangered species such as the Mexican gray wolf, the Sonoran pronghorn, and Colorado pikeminnow, depend on the Colorado.
  • Watch our video “Conflicts Over Water,” a picture-of-practice in which a class discusses how different demands for water can incite conflict. The students and teacher admit that simple ideas about “sharing” and “fairness” fail to address the complex issues surrounding water use. How would students consider the interests of different stakeholders (listed above) that may have conflicting demands for the water of the Colorado? Which interests or stakeholders would be prioritized? Why?
  • Watch the video embedded above, which explains “Change the Course,” a campaign to help restore the flow of the Colorado River. (National Geographic is a partner in Change the Course.) How can students help reduce demands on the Colorado and help restore its flow?
    • Conserve! Some of the suggestions in the video include eating less meat, buying fewer things, recycling and buying recyclable goods, landscaping with native plants, taking shorter showers, and buying energy-efficient appliances.
  • The Colorado River is so controlled it no longer reaches its delta, in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Entire wetland ecosystems have dried up. One of the goals of Change the Course and other Colorado River conservation efforts is to allow the river to reach its delta. Read our profile of Osvel Huerta, a scientist and conservationist working to restore the Colorado delta. How does Osvel’s definition of geography relate to his work restoring the Colorado?
    • Osvel defines geography as a tool to better recognize and understand patterns between “culture, society, environment, vegetation, and animals.” This directly relates to issues surrounding conflicts over water, where the interests of different stakeholders must be recognized and considered. “It takes time,” says Osvel. “But once you find common ground and make it clear that everyone is working toward a common goal, which is to improve conditions for everyone, then it’s easier to make progress.”

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