Averting drought and disaster on the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers : Short Wave Historic drought in the west and water diversion for human use are causing stretches of the Colorado and Mississippi rivers to run dry. "The American West is going to have to need to learn how to do more with less," says Laurence Smith, a river surveyor and environmental studies professor at Brown University. He recently dropped in for a chat with Short Wave co-host Emily Kwong about how scientists are turning a new page on managing two of The United States's central waterways, the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers.

A course correction in managing drying rivers

A course correction in managing drying rivers

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The Colorado River is imperiled, parched by droughts exacerbated by climate change. According to a 2017 study, waterflow could drop 30% by 2050 and 55% by 2100 due to greenhouse gas emissions. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The /Denver Post via Getty Images hide caption

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RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The /Denver Post via Getty Images

The Colorado River is imperiled, parched by droughts exacerbated by climate change. According to a 2017 study, waterflow could drop 30% by 2050 and 55% by 2100 due to greenhouse gas emissions.

RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The /Denver Post via Getty Images

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Historic drought in the west and water diversion for human use are causing stretches of the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers to run dry. The Colorado River's declining flows can be seen at Lake Mead, where precipitous drops in water levels have left chalky stains on the mountains surrounding the United States's largest reservoir (by volume). And in October of last year, weak currents on the Mississippi River caused a backup of thousands of barges carrying the equivalent of 210,000 container trucks of corn and soy beans.

"We would have had a drought anyhow, but it's human impact that has pushed it over the edge," says Laurence Smith, a professor of environmental studies and earth sciences at Brown University. "The American West is going to have to need to learn how to do more with less."

In his interview with Short Wave co-host Emily Kwong, Laurence argues that implementing new approaches to managing rivers is essential for healthier waterways and sustaining the communities that depend on them. Moreover, strategic management today is the way to a better, climate-adapted future.

Are more watery wonderings surfacing on the banks of your mind? Toss us a line at shortwave@npr.org — we might cover your musings in a future episode!

Listen to Short Wave on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

This episode was produced by Abe Levine. It was edited by Rebecca Ramirez and Gisele Grayson. Margaret Cirino and Rebecca checked the facts. Robert Rodriguez was the audio engineer.