One river, so little water

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The history of the American West is written not in blood, but in water. Without imported water, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix would have remained as they were during the early years of the 20th century — pleasant, sleepy backwaters, footnotes to a larger history.
More than 70 percent of Colorado Springs’ water comes from tributaries of the Colorado River, captured in dozens of impoundments and transported through a complex network of pipelines and tunnels.
The Springs, along with Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix, lives because of the Colorado River. If its flow falters, if the river fails, so too will the cities.
Colorado River water keeps lawns green in Colorado Springs, grows crops in California’s Imperial Valley and fills swimming pools in Phoenix. In Las Vegas, the Bellagio’s famed fountains throw water from the Colorado into the desert air, where it seems to vanish in the mist.
But how could these cities, so distant from the river, claim its waters? None of them border the Colorado — in fact, they’re not even close.

Western water law

The cities’ claims are based on western water law, which is unique to Alaska and the 17 conterminous states of the West. The doctrine of prior appropriation, commonly referred to as “first in time, first in right,” was developed in California during the 1850s.
“The miners, just as they did with the mining laws, developed their own water laws before any state or federal court or legislature spoke,” writes University of Colorado professor Charles Wilkinson in “Crossing The Next Meridian.”

Cities of the River
This Week Colorado River
Week 2 Colorado River Compact
Week 3 Las Vegas
Week 4 Phoenix
Week 5 Los Angeles
Week 6 Colorado Springs
Next week:
The architects of the 1922 Colorado River Compact assumed that the river’s annual average flow was more than 15 million acre feet. They were wrong. What are the consequences of the original error? Are we entering an era of prolonged, permanent drought?

“If two men, or companies, came in and diverted a whole stream, so be it. If just one took the whole stream, so be it. They needed it; they depended on it; they had rights to it. In one sense: absolute anarchy. In another, one that made much better logic in those days: absolute order. In a mining society, how could a person operate without being able to rely on a stable possession of the claim and the water necessary to operate it?”
In 1882, the Colorado Supreme Court made the definitive ruling that established the extraordinary reach of the prior appropriation doctrine.
In “Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co.” the court ruled that the upstream water user who held senior water rights could legally divert an entire river out of basin, despite the burden that was placed on Coffin, a farmer who was the downstream user.
Under prior appropriation, a water right could only be obtained by diverting water for a “beneficial use”: mining, agriculture, industry, municipal, domestic, livestock and hydropower. Recreational, aesthetic and environmental uses were not considered beneficial.
In the other 32 states, water use is based on riparian law, which originated in English common law. Riparian rights are available to any property owner whose land borders a waterway and entitle them to the natural flow of water beside or through their land, without any significant change in the quantity or purity of the water.
While riparian law recognizes the river as an entity, something greater than the people and communities that it serves, prior appropriation encourages a very different view.
In the West, a river’s water, like gold in a mining claim, is a resource. It belongs to those who are smart enough, tough enough, rich enough and lucky enough to seize it.

Paradise found, but who decides how to split the bounty?
The barren, waterless lands of the West, so unsuitable for agriculture, were blessed with mild, equable climates.
After the bitter winters and mosquito-ridden summers of the Midwest, cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles seemed like earthly paradises, places where men and women could shake off the shackles of climate and be truly free.
But the paradises easily would have been lost without water to fuel and sustain their burgeoning populations.
The coldly realistic men who built these cities knew where to find water — in the pristine reaches of the Colorado River, which flowed unimpeded through wilderness landscapes of unimaginable beauty. The river’s banks were unpopulated, and under prior appropriation, the water was there for the taking. It had only to be claimed, diverted and put to beneficial use.
But who would take it, and how could it be most efficiently exploited?

Colorado River Compact

Editor’s Note

This is the first of a six-part series exploring the critical importance of the Colorado River to the growth, development, and continuing prosperity of Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The river’s waters are already over-allocated, and there is little prospect that average yearly flows will increase. There is a real possibility that what we now consider drought will become the norm and that the cities will enter into a new era of reduced water availability and enforced conservation.

How will the cities meet these new challenges? Who will gain, and who will lose? Will the historic model of growth-driven prosperity continue? Are businesses, politicians, water managers, developers and government officials creating sustainable blueprints for the future, or are they simply continuing with business as usual and hoping for the best?

It was clear by the early years of the 20th century that the inherent disorder of prior appropriation would have to be mitigated by a regional agreement to level the playing field.
That agreement was the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The compact divided the river’s flow between seven western states: Arizona, California and Nevada (the Lower Basin states), and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (the Upper Basin states). It would enable those seven states and Mexico to divert literally every drop of the river’s waters, transforming it, as Phillip Fradkin said, into “a river no more.”
At the time, the Upper Basin states were concerned that plans for Hoover Dam and other water development projects in the Lower Basin states would, under prior appropriation, deprive them of their ability to use the river.
The states could not agree on how the waters of the Colorado River Basin should be allocated, so U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover suggested that the basin be divided into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually.
Subsequent agreements allocated 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, pursuant to treaty obligations (1944), gave each state specific allotments (1928, 1948), and provided that all states would share in reducing allocations during drought (2007).

A brief history of the river
From its origin in the mountains of Colorado to its mouth in the Gulf of California, the Colorado River is about 1,450 miles long. It drains 243,000 square miles, or slightly less than 5 percent of the continental United States. The mean flow (before diversion) of the river is 22,000 cubic feet per second, which, as rivers go, isn’t much.
Just before joining the Mississippi at St. Louis, the Missouri, which drains 529,300 square miles, has an average flow of 89,950 cubic feet per second. And the mighty Mississippi, draining 1.15 million square miles, has an average flow at Baton Rouge of 450,000 cubic feet per second.
From its Colorado headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, the river descends to the Kawaneeche Valley and then enters Gore Canyon. The Eagle River joins it at Dotsero, the Roaring Fork at Glenwood Springs and the Gunnison at Grand Junction. The river then turns into Utah, where it is met by the Green at the entrance to Canyonlands National Park.
At the end of the 19th century, the river passed through Glen Canyon and Marble Canyon, and eventually descended into the Grand Canyon, emerging to flow slowly toward the Gulf of California, where its vast estuary nourished birds, marine life and animals.
Today, the river and its tributaries are dammed, diverted and drained. Vast engineering projects, such as Flaming Gorge Dam, Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam, the All-American Canal, and the Central Arizona Project Aqueduct have transformed the river into an open-air pipeline, a mechanism for storing and transporting water to the winners in the water game — the Cities of the River.
But the Colorado no longer runs to the sea. Its bounty exhausted, it disappears into the Sonoran desert miles before reaching the desiccated marshlands that were once its estuary.
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com