New water accounting reveals why the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea

Brian D. Richter, Gambhir Lamsal, Landon Marston, Sameer Dhakal, Laljeet Singh Sangha, Richard R. Rushforth, Dongyang Wei, Benjamin L. Ruddell, Kyle Frankel Davis, Astrid Hernandez-Cruz, Samuel Sandoval-Solis, John C. Schmidt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Persistent overuse of water supplies from the Colorado River during recent decades has substantially depleted large storage reservoirs and triggered mandatory cutbacks in water use. The river holds critical importance to more than 40 million people and more than two million hectares of cropland. Therefore, a full accounting of where the river’s water goes en route to its delta is necessary. Detailed knowledge of how and where the river’s water is used can aid design of strategies and plans for bringing water use into balance with available supplies. Here we apply authoritative primary data sources and modeled crop and riparian/wetland evapotranspiration estimates to compile a water budget based on average consumptive water use during 2000–2019. Overall water consumption includes both direct human uses in the municipal, commercial, industrial, and agricultural sectors, as well as indirect water losses to reservoir evaporation and water consumed through riparian/wetland evapotranspiration. Irrigated agriculture is responsible for 74% of direct human uses and 52% of overall water consumption. Water consumed for agriculture amounts to three times all other direct uses combined. Cattle feed crops including alfalfa and other grass hays account for 46% of all direct water consumption.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number134
JournalCommunications Earth and Environment
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'New water accounting reveals why the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this