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The largest employer in the American Southwest isn't a company, a military base, a government. When anyone talks about job creators in this part of the country, they should include the Colorado River.

Protect the Flows, a coalition of about 400 small businesses that depend on the river and work to protect it, commissioned a study of the Colorado's economic impact across six Western states. Southwick Associates, Inc., a Florida-based research company that specializes in natural resource and environmental economics, conducted the study, "Colorado River, Inc.: The $26 Billion Recreation Resource Employing a Quarter Million Americans." It was released this week.

The study found that, if it were a corporation, the Colorado River would be the 19th largest employer on the Fortune 500. Its recreation-related industries fuel the economies of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and provide jobs for nearly a quarter of a million people. Its water quenches the thirst of 36 million people and irrigates 12 percent of all America's crops.

It's easy to take the river for granted. And it is so much a part of the lives of all Westerners that the idea of the Colorado shrinking is simply incomprehensible. But its flow is decreasing, and the water storage it supports in Lake Powell and Lake Mead is evaporating.

Water managers, government planners and residents of the states supported by the Colorado are facing a water crisis caused by overuse and a warming climate, and everyone must take responsibility for finding solutions.

Water in the storage reservoirs has dropped about 35 percent in the past dozen years, and research by the Department of Interior indicates the trend will continue and even worsen. Conservation and more commonsense planning can help prevent a disastrous drinking-water shortage, and that is the focus of most Colorado River research.

However, the Protect the Flows study paints a stark picture of looming economic disaster that has not so far been a priority of policy makers who too often don't take the recreation-based economy of Utah and other states seriously. But, obviously, they should.

The study shows that the river:

Produces $26 billion in economic output, generates $17.0 billion in retail sales, out-performs regional farming revenues by 14.6 percent on average, contributes $3.2 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue annually, provides enough state and local tax revenues to fund more than 29,000 teacher positions and creates $10.4 billion in annual earnings, salaries, and wages.