April 11, 2014--The Colorado River, your water footprint, and why it matters (Yale Scientific)

The Colorado River was once a symbol of the majesty of the American West. The brute force of its waters carved the Grand Canyon, a national treasure that Theodore Roosevelt called “the one great sight which every American should see.” Beginning in the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, it wound its way southwest, passing through seven states before entering Mexico and emptying into the Gulf of California. In contrast to the arid lands of the Southwest, its banks were verdant, an oasis for dozens of species of birds and fish. Today, however, the once-lush Colorado River Delta is now barren and desiccated. For nearly a decade, the mighty river has not reached the sea, petering out to a mere trickle and leaving its marshlands dry. The culprit lies upstream, where 30 million Americans have diverted and dammed the river for their own use. The water is used not only to support the burgeoning populations of cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, but also to provide irrigation for over 3.5 million acres of cropland. Without intervention, it seems unlikely that the flow of the Colorado River will return to its natural state anytime soon. The key here is conscious consumption. By choosing to reduce the amount of meat, eggs, and other animal products in their diets, consumers can lower their indirect water footprints. In terms of liquids, tea consumes 9 gallons of water to coffee’s 37 gallons, making tea the caffeinated beverage of choice for a water-conscious consumer. In choosing produce, consumers should pay attention to season and source. A Connecticut native can enjoy local heirloom tomatoes in late August at a relatively low water footprint, but tomatoes in the dead of winter are likely coming from distant, potentially water-threatened areas. Professor Shimon Anisfeld of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences has witnessed firsthand the regional nature of water use. Anisfeld, who studies human impacts on rivers in the Connecticut area, noted that “many rivers in the state are depleted relative to their natural flows,” not unlike the ailing Colorado River. However, he continued, “in contrast to states like Colorado and California where most water is used for irrigation of crops, in Connecticut most water goes to household use.” For Connecticut residents, then, reductions in individual use like shortening showers and fixing leaky faucets are all the more important. “The population of Connecticut certainly has the power to determine how much water they use; it is the cumulative effect of individual actions that will keep Connecticut’s streams flowing,” Anisfeld said.

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