The Colorado River Compact: 75 Years Later
The Colorado River Compact: 75 Years Later
Introduction to September/October Western Water
It was a time of great plans and grand visions. The goal was to tame the Colorado River, to protect people from floods and put its waters to work irrigating cropland, supplying new industries and producing hydroelectric power for the west’s booming cities. But before the dream of constructing large water works to further settle the region could become reality, the river’s waters had to be divided.
The Colorado already had been tapped by pioneer irrigators in the seven-state region. Each state wanted a share. Each state had its own needs. Each state viewed the others with suspicion and hostility. Yet without a multi-state agreement, the possibility of years of litigation stretched ahead. Too, there was fear among some that the federal government and its young Reclamation Service would usurp the states’ rights, build its own projects and assume control of the water.
Against this backdrop, seven states’ representatives joined then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover at bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M., on Nov. 9, 1922, for yet another series of negotiations about dividing the Colorado river’s waters. After 17 sessions over the next 15 days, the Colorado River Commission emerged with the Colorado River Compact.
The compact was and remains a historic milestone. It was the first time more than three states negotiated an agreement among themselves to apportion the waters of a stream. The compact provided for the “equitable division and apportionment” of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System by dividing it into two basins, the upper and lower basins. Other major purposes of the compact were “to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water, to promote interstate comity, to remove causes of present and future controversies and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods.”
The compact attempted to look into the future and determine the water needs of the desert Southwest. But the signers could not foresee the immense urban growth, the technological advances and the interest in protecting the natural environment still to come 75 years later. Nor did they realize that the river’s flow was insufficient to meet all the demand.
“We believed that the Colorado River carried sufficient water for present and future needs of the seven states and Mexico. The data from the experts were convincing,” said Colorado State University Professor Dan Tyler, playing the part of Ward Bannister, a Denver attorney who closely observed the 1922 negotiations. “We were wrong. None of us anticipated the exponential development of industry and recreation, the growth of cities in the basin or the problems associated with irrigated agriculture in heavily salinated soils. What we truly concluded to be sufficient water in the Colorado River for all needs for all time soon became a glaring shortage. The seeds of controversy for the Colorado River Compact were sown.”
The controversial issues of today — water for Mexico, American Indian water rights, endangered species, water quality and water transfers — and their relationship to the past were the focus of a special symposium organized by the Water Education Foundation. The May 28-31 event, Using History to Understand Current Water Problems, marked the pending 75th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact.
“The point of the compact was simply to make a fairly crude allocation of quantities of water for consumptive use. Ambiguities perhaps were inevitable. Certainly the lack of perfect vision into the future can be excused. So there are a lot of problems around that we have to solve today,” said David Getches, professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado.
“The question is how to work within a framework of the compact and the rest of the law of the river to deal with the pressing issues that are on us,” Getches continued. “We’re dealing with questions of banking and marketing of water that were certainly not foreseen. The Mexican interest issues are going to get much larger as the future unfolds. … We need to figure out how to work with the compact and get these problems solved. The compact was meant to be futuristic, and our concerns now ought to focus on the future of the Colorado River. … To look at what we inherited to see how we can use it constructively for these wider needs in the future.”
If many modern-day issues were unforeseen when the compact was forged, others simply were not addressed. For the 1922 negotiators, it was a foregone conclusion that the federal government would continue its responsibility to the Americans Indians regardless of a Colorado River Compact. The commissioners intentionally chose to leave Mexico’s claims completely out of compact negotiations, and subsequently agreed unanimously to expunge from the record any debate on Mexico, leaving it to a later agreement.
It is these issues as well as the politics within the region that drive the debate today. At times, the rhetoric of 1997 parallels that of 1922 as the seven Colorado River basin states push for less federal government involvement when it comes to water use, water quality, transfers and instream flows, and water for American Indians tribes and Mexico.
The federal vs. states dynamic prompted one participant at the May symposium, attorney Jerome Muys, to wryly note that long-time water attorney Northcutt “Mike” Ely, who served in the Department of the Interior (Interior) during the Hoover administration, “was as much an ardent states’ righter as anyone I ever met. He used to say, in a very pragmatic way with a twinkle in his eye, ‘When you marry the U.S. Treasury, you get the federal government for a mother-in-law.’ So we recognize the reality of water resource development in the West.”
The desire for development is what prompted the states to meet with Hoover and negotiate a compact in 1922. As the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau), which built the many dams and diversion facilities along the Colorado, follows its new mission of water resources management, the states, American Indian tribes, environmentalists and other interests must now address a new era.
This Western Water marks the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Colorado River Compact. The article includes a historical perspective on the compact negotiations, explores the law of the river, discusses current issues facing the upper and lower basins, and offers a glimpse of the future. Much of the content for this magazine came from the Foundation’s May symposium. The Foundation will publish the full proceedings of the symposium, which was tape-recorded, by the end of the year.
“Keep Tahoe Blue” was the message the president and vice president delivered at the July Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum. Months before, Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid invited all California-Nevada factions of the Tahoe debate to participate in a high level summit. As we reported in the last Western Water, the Sierra Nevada’s crown jewel, renowned for its breathtaking clarity, has been losing over 1 foot of transparency annually since the 1960s.
I felt honored to receive an invitation to both Vice President Gore’s South Tahoe discussion and President Clinton’s Forum in North Tahoe. Whether one is a Republican or Democrat it’s exciting to be invited to briefly chat with both the president and vice president.
Our Tahoe issue writer, Elizabeth McCarthy, was part of the press party that followed the vice president around the Tahoe Basin at a frenzied pace — no stops to eat — trekking behind Mr. Gore on a hike high above the lake. I participated in the discussion of issues led by the vice president on forest health, water quality, transportation and the environment and the economy. Sitting on tree stumps for almost three hours were three presidential cabinet secretaries, three U.S. senators and numerous longtime dedicated Lake restoration volunteers. I was seated next to the Washoe Tribe delegation and, fortunately, we had chairs.
At the Presidential Forum the next day, President Clinton announced a commitment of $50 million and a 27-step action plan for improving the lake’s health. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) had developed a 10-year $900 million plan funded by federal, state and private sources, calling for $300 million in federal funds. While the local agencies and volunteers said they were content with this first $50 million federal installment, the Wilson administration, through Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler, expressed dissatisfaction, saying the state would rethink its share. Earlier, Gov. Wilson indicated California would fulfill the $275 million requested by TRPA contingent on the federal commitment.
Chief Writer Sue McClurg returns to writing Western Water with this issue, focusing on a water resource shared by seven states — the Colorado River. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the negotiations leading to the Colorado River Compact. The framers of the compact tried to envision a future where the river was shared equitably. Today, although there are more interests sharing the river, that vision should remain.
In the News
A new player entered the ongoing tug-of-war over Imperial Valley water in August when U.S. Filter Corp. announced it had acquired the 45,000-acre Western Farms owned by the Bass brothers in exchange for 8 million shares of stock. As of the stock market’s close Aug. 25, the shares were worth $289 million.
“We now add the most important product Ð the water Ð to our one-stop business strategy,” said Richard Heckmann, U.S. Filter chairman, president and CEO in an Aug. 4 press release.
Based in Palm Desert, Calif., U.S. Filter is the leading global provider of water and wastewater treatment equipment, systems and services, including super-treated water for the computer industry. The Texas-based, billionaire Bass brothers have played a leading role in the proposal to conserve and transfer water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.
In the same press release, Western Farms President Ardon Moore praised “a new partnership that we see as the perfect way to continue our focus on helping the Imperial Valley strengthen its agricultural economy while providing reliable and more affordable water supplies to urban areas.”
Although a Wall Street Journal article heralded the deal as giving U.S. Filter rights to 250,000 acre-feet of water that it can sell to urban water interests for up to 28 times its costs, those close to the situation said the change in land ownership doesn’t change the basic water marketing equation.
The landowners still do not hold individual rights to Colorado River water. “The water rights are held in trust by the district,” said Paul Cunningham, manager of external affairs for Imperial Irrigation District (IID). “Western Farms has the right to use the water, but any transfer needs to go through IID’s elected board.”
The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) still maintains that it comes next in the priority order before any water is transferred. “I don’t think it changed any of the real issues between the California parties,” said Tom Levy, general manager of CVWD. “Whether U.S. Filter is able to achieve what they want is going to depend on the California process being successful in solving our problems, including Coachella’s.”
The urban players — San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) — still have not resolved their dispute over wheeling water through the Colorado River Aqueduct.
Since IID and SDCWA announced plans to pursue a water conservation/marketing deal in September 1995, the issue has been hotly debated within and outside of the Imperial Valley. Questions raised have included how much water to transfer, what is a fair price, who should profit, water wheeling and wheeling costs. The agencies that share the Colorado River are now meeting to try and negotiate a solution that addresses these and other concerns (see page 15.)
Meanwhile, U.S. Filter will explore ways in which its existing technology can stretch its own and the Imperial valley’s share of the Colorado River through conservation and treatment of agricultural drainage water, perhaps eventually marketing this water. Section 1010 of the water code allows the sale, lease, exchange or transfer of recycled, desalinated or polluted water. Conservation is a key component to free up water for transfer, although there is concern that reduction in agricultural drainage flows could further impact the Salton Sea.
“We look forward to working with Imperial Valley farmers and the IID in pursuing the much-needed conservation programs already underway,” Heckmann said. “This is a great way to bring much-needed capital investment to the Imperial Valley economy and preserve its agricultural heritage.”