At one time, the Colorado River stretched for more than 2000 kilometers, from the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the western United States to Mexico, where it emptied into the Gulf of California. But since the eighties at the latest, it has been losing water and hardly reaches the delta in the south. Its salt content has increased, toxins contaminate the water.
Around 40 million people depend on the river for agriculture or drinking water, including 30 indigenous communities in the United States and Mexico. It is also used to produce electricity from hydropower.
But reduced snowfall in the Rocky Mountains and droughts in the western United States, both caused by climate change, are drying up the river. Huge farms and extensive water use for large cities such as Phoenix or Las Vegas do the rest. In Arizona, the river seeps into the desert.
Photographer Jonas Kakó observed Leticia Galavis Sainz, an indigenous woman from Mexico's El Mayor Reservation, casting her net as she glides across the water in her old fishing boat. But only branches and other flotsam get stuck. From time to time she has to shovel water out of the boat.
When the sun goes down, she returns with an empty bucket.
In the past, the Cucapah, which means the people of the river, lived mainly from fishing. But today, says Galavis Sainz, the water is contaminated by pesticides from agriculture and other toxic substances. The fish is no longer enough, people are now trying to make a living as day laborers, for example.
"When you get to the mouth of the Colorado River, on the Gulf of California, you see how little is left of the once mighty river. The formerly extensive delta, an ecosystem with many bird species, is now a salt desert," says Jonas Kakó, who has documented the dying river in Mexico and the USA.
But even further up the river, the falling water level is clearly visible. Lake Mead, near the city of Las Vegas, has less than a third of the possible water volume. Experts fear that the water level could soon be too low to drive the turbines of the dam there and produce electricity. Many local communities get 90 percent of their water from the lake.
A study published in the journal Science identifies climate change as the main cause of the Colorado River's decay. Chris Milly and Krista Dunne, the authors, calculated that the water level has already dropped by 1.5 billion cubic meters. They diagnose a vicious circle: less snowfall in the mountains, caused by climate change, also leads to less solar radiation being diverted back into the atmosphere, causing the soil to warm faster and water to evaporate more quickly. Milly and Dune have calculated that for every degree the climate warms, the volume of water in the river decreases by 9.3 percent.
In Las Vegas, a water administration is now taking care of preventing the Colorado River from drying up. From 2026, the planting of lawns in the city is to be banned, already today there are strict regulations for watering gardens. To ensure that these are adhered to, the city has its own monitoring teams that drive through the suburbs – and impose fines in the event of violations.
Environmentalists and climate activists finally succeeded in bringing the problem into the political focus at the national level as well. To protect the Colorado River, President Joe Biden's U.S. administration recently signed an agreement with seven states to save the river – and is now giving the states money to save more water.
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