Time To Stop Blaming The Compact?

Via Sustainable Waters, commentary on the Colorado River Compact and the conclusion that the true reason we are experiencing a water shortage crisis in the Colorado River Basin is not because of flaws in the Compact, but rather because we have been unable to reduce our use of water commensurate with the reality that the river no longer produces what it did in the last century:

While floating through the Grand Canyon recently, river guide extraordinaire Bruce Keller taught me a new word: “mumpsimus.”

It means “a traditional notion that is obstinately held although it is unreasonable.”

I immediately thought of the way that the Colorado River Compact is being repeatedly blamed for the current water crisis in the Colorado River system. The oft-stated accusation is that the water shortages we’re experiencing now can be blamed on the fact that the framers of the Compact allocated too much water — much more than the river system could actually deliver. “The river was over-allocated from the beginning.”

In full disclosure, I must admit that I have made similar statements myself in the past. I am guilty of mumsimus. But I have reconsidered my position.

I’ve concluded that blaming the Compact is misleading and unhelpful. Implicating a Compact fashioned 100 years ago obfuscates rightful accountability. The situation we’re in now is not the fault of the Compact’s architects. This one’s on us, on our generation, not theirs.

Here’s my rationale.

We’ve Never Used as Much as Was Allocated

The framers of the Colorado River Compact of 1922 allocated 15 million acre-feet (MAF) per year for use within the US: 7.5 MAF each for the Upper and Lower Basins.** They anticipated that more water would eventually need to be allocated to Mexico. A 1944 treaty with Mexico set that country’s allocation at 1.5 MAF/year.

In sum, a total of 16.5 MAF/year has been allocated for human use.

Annual human uses of the river’s water have never come close to 16.5 MAF. According to estimates by the US Bureau of Reclamation, the average annual consumption for human uses since 2000 is about 12.6 MAF — far below what the Compact allows. The annual use would have likely been higher than 12.6 MAF if not for the Compact. In the early 2000s, California was beginning to use more than its 4.4 MAF portion of the 7.5 MAF/year allocated among the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada, but the federal government reeled it back in so that the total Lower Basin use would not exceed 7.5 MAF.

Yes, There Were Big Oversights 

If the Compact is to be faulted, it should be for the things it didn’t say or anticipate. The framers of the Compact didn’t account for three critically important uses and needs for the river’s water today: (1) water rights legally held but not yet used by Native American tribes; (2) water needed to sustain natural ecosystem health; and (3) evaporation from the many reservoirs that would eventually be built.

Evaporative losses from the reservoirs, plus what is evaporated and transpired from the river and its associated riparian and wetland ecosystems, accounts for another 2.4 MAF/year, bringing the total volume of water consumed for human and natural purposes to about 15 MAF/year.

Still well below what was explicitly allocated in the Compact and the international treaty with Mexico.

I’ll return to the issue of Native American rights and ecosystem needs in a moment.

The Compact Held Up for Nearly 80 Years

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the durability of the Compact is the fact that cities and farmers were able to prosper for nearly 80 years after the Compact was put into place. Cities dependent on the river grew exponentially, and basin farmers were able to grow food for our country and other nations.

The reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin were nearly full in 2000. Virtually nobody was concerned about water shortages. In fact, the conversation at that time was centered on how to share surplus water!

And Then the Climate Changed

During the 20th century, an average of 16.4 MAF/year of water flowed into and through the Colorado River each year, enough to fully serve all human uses and losses of water to evaporation.

Since 2000, that flow of water has decreased to 13.5 MAF/year, the combined result of a warming climate and lessened precipitation — now recognized as the driest 23 years in the past 1200 years. That has left a shortfall of 1.5 MAF/year, and we’ve been pillaging the water stored in big reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell to make up the deficit.

The true reason we are experiencing a water shortage crisis in the Colorado River Basin is not because of flaws in the Compact. It is because we have been unable to reduce our use of water commensurate with the reality that the river no longer produces what it did in the last century. If we can’t own up to this truth we will not be able to build a water-secure future.

Making Things Right

It is high time to reckon with the river’s limits, and with the inherent rights of the indigenous inhabitants of the river basin. This is the time — at the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact — to make things right.

The allocations of water made in the Compact and subsequent agreements are now clearly unattainable and should be revised. Given that reality, let’s take the opportunity to also address some shortcomings in the way the Compact was structured. Any reallocation of the river’s water should begin with an inalienable reserve of water for Native Americans — including both what they are already able to use, plus the other water to which they are legally entitled but not using presently. What is not presently being used by the tribes should be left in the river for use by its oldest inhabitants: ancient native creatures like the Colorado pikeminnow and the humpback chub that have been swimming in the river system for millions of years but now teeter at the brink of extinction.

Once the indigenous reserve is legitimately accounted for, the remainder of the 13.5 MAF/year flowing downriver should be shared equitably — in portions that will likely need to be renegotiated among the states and Mexico.

Only by adjusting human needs to what the river is able to give, and only by aligning those needs in a just, equitable, and sustainable manner with native peoples and ecosystems, will we be able to again realize the prosperity envisioned by the Compact’s architects.

** The Compact also allowed the lower basin states to use their own tributaries to the Colorado, but that additional 1 MAF doesn’t get included in the river’s annual budget tracking so I’ll ignore it here as well simply to match numbers with the Bureau of Reclamation. However, true and full water budget accounting for the river basin should include the water supply from the tributaries in the Lower Basin as well as the uses of that water.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 29th, 2022 at 10:46 am and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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