Photo: Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River

The Colorado River winds 1,470 miles (2.366 kilometers) from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California's Sea of Cortez—or did when its waters were more plentiful.

Photograph by Frans Lanting

Rivers and their tributaries are the veins of the planet, pumping freshwater to wetlands and lakes and out to sea. They flush nutrients through aquatic ecosystems, keeping thousands of species alive, and help sustain fisheries worth billions of dollars.

Rivers are also the lifeblood of human civilizations. They supply water to cities, farms, and factories. Rivers carve shipping routes around the globe, and provide us with food, recreation, and energy. Hydroelectric plants built from bank to bank harness the power of water and convert it to electricity.

But rivers are also often the endpoint for much of our industrial and urban pollution and runoff. When it rains, chemical fertilizer and animal waste peppering residential areas and agricultural lands is swept into local streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. The result: polluted drinking water sources and the decline of aquatic species, in addition to coastal dead zones caused by fertilizer and sewage overload.

Over the course of human history, waterways have been manipulated for irrigation, urban development, navigation, and energy. Dams and levees now alter their flow, interrupting natural fluctuations and the breeding and feeding patterns of fish and other river creatures. Technology and engineering have changed the course of nature, and now we are looking for ways to restore flow and function to the planet’s circulatory system.

The Colorado River provides an excellent example of what happens when demand for river water—for cities, industry, energy production, and agriculture—threatens to outpace supply. Learn more with our interactive Colorado River map.

River Facts

  • An unsettling number of large rivers—including the Colorado, Rio Grande, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Amu Darya, Murray, and Nile—are now so overtapped that they discharge little or no water to the sea for months at a time.
  • China is proceeding with a massive $60 billion project to transfer water from the Yangtze River Basin in the south to the water-short north. If completed it would be the largest construction project on Earth and would transfer 1.5 trillion cubic feet (41.3 billion cubic meters) of water per year—a volume equal to half that of the Nile River.
  • After enduring 19 flood episodes between 1961 and 1997, Napa, California, opted to restore the Napa River floodplain for $366 million, instead of the more conventional flood-control strategy of channelizing and building levees.


Did You Know?

84 percent of the Nile’s flow originates in Ethiopia, while the country faces famine due to drought. (At 4,132 miles, or 6,650 km, the Nile is Earth's longest river.)

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Help Save the Colorado River

You can help restore freshwater ecosystems by pledging to cut your water footprint. For every pledge, Change the Course will restore 1,000 gallons back to the Colorado River.

Freshwater Advocates

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    Freshwater Hero: Pete McBride

    Pete is a photographer and visual storyteller with an emphasis on freshwater conservation.

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    Sandra Postel

    Sandra is a leading authority on international freshwater issues and is spearheading our global freshwater efforts.

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    Osvel Hinojosa Huerta

    For more than 15 years, Osvel Hinojosa Huerta has been resurrecting Mexico's Colorado River Delta wetlands.

For More Inspiration »

Water Currents, by Sandra Postel and Others

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