Over 40 million people rely on the Colorado River as an economic, physical, and spiritual source of life. At least 25 federally recognized American Indian nations, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, 11 national parks, seven U.S. states and two Mexican states have legal claim to the Colorado River’s water. But not all of these stakeholders ever see the water they legally have a right to. The science behind the division of the Colorado River’s water outlined in the 1922 Colorado River Compact overestimated the amount of water available in the Colorado River and gave more legal claims to the water than there is water available. This is referred to as “paper water” which is the term for legal claims to water that doesn’t exist. Rising temperatures has caused the river’s water to decline and policymakers have been forced to decide who will sacrifice their fundamental human right to water in order to conserve the Colorado River. 

**These images are part of an ongoing effort to document this story**

©2021 by Molly Gibbs


The water stored in Lake Powell is used as a “bank account” of water that is drawn during times of drought. The power produced at Glen Canyon Dam helps power Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nebraska. The dam also helps ensure distribution of the Colorado River’s water meets the standards outlined in the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Without the water storage at Glen Canyon Dam, the requirements for water distribution could not be met due to Upper Basin States’ water use.