The Colorado River with Grand Mesa in the background from Riverbend Park, Palisade, Colo.

(Photo: iStockphoto)

Researchers say environmental protection for the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River is disjointed and too often gets a low priority.

A new critique from the Colorado River Research Group says four multimillion-dollar conservation programs do valuable work but would have more impact if they treated the entire river as a single, integrated system instead of operating separately.

The research group is an independent organization of academics with expertise in water, agriculture, law and other fields.

They also say the river is managed primarily as a "plumbing system" to provide water for cities and agriculture and not as an ecosystem.

The Colorado is the lifeblood of the Southwest, supplying water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.