Here’s What a “Catastrophic Collapse” of the Colorado River Looks Like

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: July 21, 2023
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The Colorado River is one of the most controlled rivers in the world, which is no surprise considering just how important it is. However, when the river’s usage was mapped, it was done on the false analysis that it had about 18 million acre-feet of water. The actual figure turned out to be about 5 million acre-feet less. In simple terms, there isn’t enough water in the river to meet all the responsibilities placed on it, and as a result, the Colorado River has begun to dry up.

Infographic about the Colorado River.
The Colorado River, which carved the Grand Canyon, runs through several states.

Years ago, the subject of the Colorado River drying up seemed like a faraway horror story, similar to the end of the world. But western states have already begun water cuts, and if you live in a southwestern state, chances are you’re already experiencing water cuts. Even more terrifyingly, CNBC reports that the Federal Government has said the Colorado River faces a “catastrophic collapse” if more water cutbacks don’t happen. Here’s what that could look like:

Lake Mead and Powell Would Dry Up

Lake Mead

Lake Mead and Lake Powell are two Colorado reservoirs with falling water levels.


Lake Powell is a manufactured reservoir on the Colorado River. Its full water volume is about 25,166,000 acre-feet, but its water levels are also reducing due to reducing water levels in the Colorado River. In the last 3 years, they have reduced by about 100 feet, per CNN. At this rate, hydroelectricity production will be halted at Lake Powell’s Dam, the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam has already lost about 16 percent of its capacity to generate power in the past years.

As this continues, cities such as Arizona’s Page that depend on this dam for up to forty percent of their power generation would suffer. The same would occur in states that rely on Lake Mead. Lake Mead is a reservoir made by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River that supplies water and electricity to parts of Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California. It supplies water to 25 million people in these states and electricity to over 29 million people, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. More power outages would ensue in these states, and this is only for those who would be able to afford the outrageous costs of electricity.

Due to the scarcity, people would be forced to rely on fossil fuels like natural gas. Not only would gas become more expensive, but since it emits planet-warming gasses, it would also encourage evaporation/drying of other rivers, further worsening the water crisis. Soon, overdependence on this river would also cause it to dry up. Consequently, water costs would skyrocket even higher, and with the costs of rent in many of these urban areas, most people would be forced to move.

Farmers’ Jobs Would Get Harder

The Colorado River has irrigated more than 5.5 million acres of land. Farmers are already suffering water cuts, but this could worsen. If the water dries up, they would have to get water from other places. This would be harder, more expensive, and generally make their already-tough jobs tougher.

A large part of this water is used to produce winter vegetables, which can be stored in cold temperatures. Not every farmer will be able to keep up with the increased costs of running their farm. Many who are old or deep into mortgage debt would be forced to close and lose their land, and others would be forced to put in more work and money to make profits.

Prices of Agricultural Products Would Go Up

Colorado River - Horseshoe Bend

If more water cutbacks don’t happen, food prices will skyrocket in Southwestern states.

©Lebid Volodymyr/

As water gets harder and more expensive to come by, agricultural produce would be more expensive. This includes meat products and crops. Animal feed would go up, and the general cost of running a farm would follow suit. Crop farmers would get the worst of it and have to raise their prices drastically. An increase in food prices would affect everyone. Some of the main crops produced in these states are hay, cotton, maize, potatoes, and alfalfa, and these products affect everyone.

Vegan-friendly products made using cotton would be more expensive, and meat-lovers would have to endure outrageous beef prices as hay and other feed prices would go up. Other food products are not exempted either. The drying up of the Colorado River would affect everyone, and considering the unemployment rates and per-capita income in many cities in the southwest, the consequences could be dire.

Economic Losses 

According to The Nature Conservancy Organization, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and also supports 16 million jobs. This makes it a significant contributor to the United State’s gross domestic product as well as the economy, in general. Consequently, losing the Colorado River will deal great losses to the US and increase unemployment rates. 

Loss of Colorado Wildlife

colorado river

Some species, such as the Bonytail Chub, may be pushed into extinction if more water cutbacks don’t happen.

©Beth Ruggiero-York/

The Colorado River and basin proudly house many species of fish, birds, amphibians, mammals, and reptiles, but these numbers could drop soon. As the Colorado River dries, we cannot help but despair at thoughts of all the animals that could be pushed closer or fully into extinction, as well as the effects this would have on our ecosystem. Some of the animals that can be found in the river and its environs are dolphins, rabbits, deer, black-tailed jackrabbit, bighorn sheep, desert woodrat, and elks.

Some species such as the Bonytail Chub, Razorback Sucker, and the Colorado Pikeminnow are rare and aren’t found anywhere except Colorado’s upper river basin. These animals rely on the river’s water directly or indirectly; without this, many could fade into extinction. Such a large loss of wildlife will only damage Colorado’s ecosystem as animals are a vital part of life.

Final Thoughts

None of these outcomes is pretty. They are, however, very real, which is why it is important to eliminate water wastage and support your local river conservation organization. Remember that despite how large they look, our water bodies are finite resources and can be exhausted. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Roschetzky Photography/

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