Persistent drought and outdated water-management policies have placed the Colorado River at the top of a new list of "America's Most Endangered Rivers."
The river irrigates 4 million acres of farmland and affects the livelihood of people such as Brooke Webb, whose Mesa Park Vineyards in Palisade uses water from the Colorado. Not everyone farming in this part of the state has been able to count on Colorado water, Webb said, despite the area's dry climate.
"It's extremely unusual," she said. "We do not get a lot of natural precipitation in this valley. We try to be good stewards so that hopefully, downstream and for generations to come, that there'll still be water."
The group American Rivers releases an annual list of endangered rivers. The new report said 36 million people - from Denver to Los Angeles - also get their drinking water from the Colorado River, and it generates 250,000 jobs from outdoor recreation alone.
The seven Western states that depend on the Colorado for water aren't accustomed to cooperating for a scarce resource, said Matt Niemerski, American Rivers' director of western water policy. Each has its own water-management policies and practices, he said - policies and practices that need to be better aligned.
"It has always been the nature of the resource to pit state against state, to make sure that people get what they need first - and they have not worked together," he said. "That needs to change."
Traditional water-management solutions are no longer practical, Niemerski said, adding that the new focus should be on keeping the river flowing - and keeping more water in it, by using less.
"We can't afford the large infrastructure projects, the things like dams and reservoirs," he said. "We can't afford those anymore, as a country. The most cost-effective way out of this is looking at conservation and efficiency."
Scientists predict the Colorado's flow will decrease by 10 percent to 30 percent by 2050, and blame climate change for much of the drop.
The report is online at americanrivers.org.