Compact based on leaky logic

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.titles {font-family: Myriad, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; font-style: normal; line-height: normal; font-weight: bold; color: #3399FF;}In 1922, Colorado and six other western states, signed the Colorado River Compact, which along with a 1944 treaty with Mexico, the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact and several federal laws and Supreme Court decisions comprise the “Law of the River.”
The Law of the River governs all uses of the water in the Colorado River. It determines who may divert its waters, where its waters are stored, where they are used and how disputes must be settled.
It has endured, essentially without modification, for 85 years.


Delph Carpenter’s copy of the official Colorado River Compact (1922). Carpenter was Colorado’s representative during the negotiations.

But because of an unprecedented and apparently endless drought throughout the Colorado River Basin, the compact might no longer be an efficient regulating mechanism. In the beginning years of the 21st century, the cities and states that depend on the river’s flow find themselves in a world of scarcity, conservation and competition.
Specific amounts of water were allocated to each of the seven compact signatories, Upper Basin states Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and Lower Basin states Arizona, California and Nevada. The total amount of water was determined by averaging yearly flows for the previous 20 years, when river flows were first monitored.

Editor’s Note

This is the second 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?

Based on the historic record, the compact’s architects determined that during any 10 year period the river’s average flow was 16.5 million acre feet annually. They were wrong.
“Today, it is clear that the 1922 Compact negotiators employed a limited and unnaturally wet hydrologic record in their deliberations, resulting in allocation of a greater than sustainable quantity of Colorado River water,” according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Each signatory was allocated a specific amount of water annually, not a percentage of the river’s flow, which is closer to 13.5 million acre feet annually than 16.5 million.
Still, it seemed for many decades that there would be enough water for everyone.
The vast engineering projects that created Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam impounded millions of acre feet of water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell — enough to make up for any transient shortfalls. As recently as 2000, Lake Mead was nearly full, as was its upstream companion.
Increased usage and drought
But then the region began to feel the combined effects of accelerating water usage and a deepening, persistent drought. As of Sept. 19, Lake Mead’s water level had dropped more than 115 feet during the last seven years. Dried mudflats extend for miles where deep coves of crystalline water once harbored fish, waterbirds and recreational boaters.

Cities of the River
Week 1 Colorado River
This Week Colorado River Compact
Week 3 Las Vegas
Week 4 Phoenix
Week 5 Los Angeles
Week 6 Colorado Springs
Next week:
Las Vegas is a desert oasis, but can the city continue to grow and thrive without finding ever-increasing supplies of water?

Only during the drought of the 1950s, before the creation of Lake Powell, when Lake Mead had to supply all of the needs of the Lower Basin states, has the reservoir been as low.
Lake Powell, while somewhat above the record low levels of 2005, is at 49 percent of capacity, a figure that is not expected to improve. Its water level is 98.25 feet below “full pool.”
The drought that has drained Lake Powell and Lake Mead is unprecedented in the modern history of the river. During the past eight years, the Colorado River has received just 55 percent of its average flow of water.
And, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water and Climate Center, several straight years of above-average snowfall and water runoff in the Rockies are needed to refill the reservoirs.
But that time might never come.
A report from the National Academy of Sciences about the Colorado River Basin says that studies of past climate and streamflow conditions reveal many periods when streamflow was lower than at any time during the past 100 years of recorded flows.
That information, along with a rapid increase in urban populations in the West and warmer than average temperatures in the region, “will require that water managers prepare for possible reductions in water supplies that cannot be averted through traditional means.”
Few options
In all of the Cities of the River, water managers are preparing for worst-case scenarios.
But although they know how dire the situation might become and how few options might be available, few people outside the water community are aware of the gathering storm.
Perhaps because of the political climate, many residents of the West see the debate about the area’s changing climate as a subset of the national debate about global warming. But, as the temperature records show, the West has been warming for most of the last century, making moot any argument about the causes.
“All of the studies point in one direction — that’s drier,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It doesn’t matter if you believe in Al Gore or Rush Limbaugh, what you ought to be concerned about is what should we be doing to avoid unacceptable outcomes.”
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com