Is the Colorado River Rising?

As storms continue to batter the Southwest, water levels in the region's drought-stricken Colorado River are beginning to rise.

"These storms have delivered above average snowpack for this time of year, as well as above normal river flows," Haley Paul, Arizona policy director for the non-profit environmental organization the National Audubon Society, told Newsweek.

The data can be visualized using an interactive map by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, which shows above average snowpack and a significant rise in water levels at many of the center's data reading stations.

Lake Powell in Colorado Basin
Photo of the rocky banks of Lake Powell in the Colorado Basin. The Colorado River has been gripped by a decades-long drought and recent rain will not be enough to restore it on its own. Justin Sullivan/Getty

The Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains and flows 1,450 miles across the Southwest and northern Mexico. It supplies water to millions of people, but over the last century, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the river's flow has dropped by 20 percent.

"The Colorado River has experienced an extended drought for the past 23 years, exacerbated by climate change," Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, previously told Newsweek. "Rising temperatures are drying out the region, resulting in less flow in the river."

Does the Colorado River Reach the Ocean?

Today, the Colorado River rarely reaches the ocean. But this was not always the case: for millennia, the Colorado River stretched across the American West, carving out the states' iconic canyons and eventually ending up in the Gulf of California.

Over the years, the Colorado River has been diverted and dammed to supply water across the basin states, but this has come at a cost to the surrounding environment. Throughout the early 20th century, the river's flows diminished, and between 1960 and 1980, when Lake Powell began to fill, the river stopped flowing regularly to the sea entirely.

There have been some exceptions to this: in May 2014, the Colorado River reached the ocean for the first time in decades. However, while drought continues to grip the Southwestern states, and as global temperatures continue to rise, the reunion of these water bodies will become less likely.

Who Relies on the Colorado River?

The USGS estimates that over 40 million people rely on the Colorado River as a source of water, across the seven basin states and two states in Mexico. However, 23 years of drought in these states has led to historic lows in some of the basin's most essential water reservoirs.

Lake Mead drought
Photo of a heron in the drought-stricken waters of Lake Mead. Last summer, the U.S.'s largest man-made reservoir reached record lows. PATRICK T. FALLON/Getty

In July 2022, Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the U.S., reached an all time low of 1,040 feet above sea level. It now stands at 1,046 feet. While this is an improvement, it is still well below historical averages for this time of year.

The unprecedented drought across the river basin has forced some to take drastic action. At the start of 2023, the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, said that it would no longer be able to supply municipal water to the Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated area in Maricopa County.

The recent storms have gone someway to relieve the severity of the drought across the Southwest, but a few weeks of storms will not be enough on their own. "The water supply forecasts look to be above average," Paul said. "But remember, because our reservoirs—particularly Powell and Mead—are so low from 23 plus years of drought, it would take many years of above average snow and runoff to refill the reservoirs.

"We cannot take our eye off the ball in terms of figuring out how to use less water from the Colorado River in order to prevent the reservoirs from falling to catastrophically low levels."

Do you have a tip on a science story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about drought? Let us know via science@newsweek.com.