100 years after water compaction, the Colorado River was approaching crisis point

DENVER >> The intensification of the crisis facing the Colorado River represents what is fundamentally a math problem.

The 40 million people who depend on the river to fill a glass of water at dinner or to wash their clothes or grow food on millions of acres consume far more each year than it actually flows through the Colorado banks.

In fact, first cut 100 years ago in a paper known as the Colorado River Compact, the calculation of who gets what amount of that water may never have been balanced.

“The pact makers – and water leaders ever since – have always known or accessed information that the assignments they were making were more than the river could provide,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches. – Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado School of Law.

Over the past two decades, however, the situation on the Colorado River has become significantly more unbalanced, more dire.

Scientists now believe drought is the driest 22-year stretch in the past 1,200 years that has gripped the southwestern United States, blasting streams into the river. Furthermore, people continue to move to this part of the country. Arizona, Utah, and Nevada all rank in the top 10 fastest growing states, according to US Census data.

Although Wyoming and New Mexico aren’t growing that fast, residents are observing how two key reservoirs – popular recreational destinations – are being drawn to support Lake Powell. Meanwhile, Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District uses more water than Arizona and Nevada combined, but emphasizes their essential role in providing livestock feed and winter products to the nation.

Until recently, water managers and politicians whose voters depend on the river have avoided the hardest questions of how to rebalance a system where demand far exceeds supply. Instead, water managers have drained the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, faster than Mother Nature fills them.

In 2000, both reservoirs were about 95% full. Today, Mead and Powell are each about 27% full – once healthy savings accounts now dangerously low.

Tanks are now so low that Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this summer that they are expected to be cut between 2 million and 4 million next year. of acre feet to prevent the system from reaching low water levels, ”threatening reservoir infrastructure and hydroelectric power generation.

The commissioner set an August deadline for basin states to present options for potential water cuts. The Upper Basin states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming – have presented a plan. The Lower Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – have not submitted a combined plan.

The office threatened unilateral action in lieu of a basin-level plan. When the 60-day deadline came, however, it didn’t announce any new water cuts. Instead, the office announced that predetermined water cuts had gone into effect for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico and had given states more time to reach a basin-wide agreement.


A week before Touton’s deadline, representatives of 14 Native American tribes with water rights on the river sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation expressing concern that they had been excluded from the negotiation process.

“What is being discussed behind closed doors between the United States and the Basin States is likely to have a direct impact on the rights to water and other resources of Basin Tribes and we expect and demand that you protect our interests,” wrote the tribal representatives.

Being barred from Colorado River talks is not a new problem for Colorado River Basin tribes.

The initial pact was negotiated and signed on November 24, 1922 by seven white landowning men, who brokered the deal for the benefit of people who looked like them, said Jennifer Pitt of the National Audubon Society, who is working to restore the rivers. throughout the basin.

“They divided the water between themselves and their constituents without recognizing the water needs for Mexico, the water needs of the Native American tribes that lived among them and without recognizing the needs of the environment,” said Pitt.

Mexico, through which the Colorado’s tail snakes before dripping into the Pacific Ocean, secured its supply through a treaty in 1944. The treaty guaranteed 1.5 million acre feet in addition to the original 15 million acre feet that they had already been divided, 7.5 million each for the Upper and Lower Basins.

The tribes, however, do not yet have full access to the Colorado River. Although the pact briefly noted that tribal rights predate all others, it lacked specificity, forcing individual tribes to negotiate settlements or bring lawsuits to quantify those rights, many of which are still unsolved. It’s important to recognize the relationship between natives and non-natives at the time, said Daryl Vigil, water administrator of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico.

“In 1922, my tribe was living on subsistence,” Vigil said. “The only way to survive was through government rations on a piece of land that was not our traditional homeland. This is where we were when the fundamental law of the river was created ”.


Agriculture uses most of the river water, about 70% or 80% depending on the organization making the estimate. When it comes to the difficult question of how to reduce water consumption, farmers and ranchers are often looked at first.

Some pilot programs have focused on paying farmers to use less water, but questions remain unanswered about how to transfer savings to Lake Powell for storage or how to create a program so as not to negatively impact a person’s water rights. farmer.

Outdated state laws mean that the amount of water that a water right gives someone access to can be reduced if not fully utilized.

That’s why the Camblin family ranch in Craig, Northwest Colorado plans to water once every decade, despite being recently upgraded to an expensive, water-saving pivot irrigation system. Nine out of 10 years will receive compensation from a conservation group in exchange for abandoning excess water in the river. But in Colorado, the state revokes water rights after 10 years if they are not used.

Not only would losing that right mean they can’t access a backup water supply if their pivot system fails, but the value of their property would plummet, explained Mike Camblin. He runs a year-old cattle business with his wife and daughter, and says an acre of waterless land sells for $ 1,000, about a fifth of what it would sell for with an attached water right.

There are other ways to improve efficiency, but money is still often a barrier.

Wastewater recycling is growing across the region, albeit slowly, as it requires massive infrastructure overhauls. San Diego has built a robust desalination plant to turn seawater into potable water, yet some agricultural users are trying to terminate their contract as water is so expensive. Some cities are integrating natural sewage filtration into their landscape before the water flows back into the river. It’s all doable, but it’s expensive, and these costs are often passed on directly to water users.

One of the biggest opportunities for water conservation is changing the look of our landscapes, said Lindsay Rogers, a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting water and land in the West. .

Converting a significant amount of outdoor landscapes into more drought-tolerant plants would require a combination of policies and incentives, Rogers explained. “They will be really crucial in bridging our gap between supply and demand.”

After years of resident incentive programs, Las Vegas recently outlawed all non-working weed by 2026, setting up a blueprint for other Western communities. For years, the city has also paid residents to tear up their lawns.

In Denver, Denver Water supplies about 25% of the state’s population and uses about 2% of the water. The city has imposed mandatory restrictions for years, limiting home irrigation to three days a week.

This summer, in Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District instituted an unprecedented one-day-a-week water restriction.

However, regardless of the type of water use, more concessions need to be made.

“The law of the river is not suited to what the river has become and what we see it becoming more and more,” said Pitt of Audubon. “It was built on the expectation of a greater water supply than we have.”


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