Next president must act fast on Colorado River water supply cuts

by Karen Graham, originally posted on October 31, 2016


The next president of the U.S., whoever it may be, will have to act fast to help the Colorado River continue serving millions of city-dwellers, farmers, Indian tribes and recreational users in the Southwestern U.S.

The challenges surrounding competition for the already scarce Colorado River’s waters are nothing new. But they have grown in complexity after 16 years of on-and-off drought conditions in the Southwest.

According to the Associated Press, a recent survey by researchers at the University of Colorado found that 65 decision-makers, including water managers, municipal and agricultural customers, conservationists and government officials at the tribal, state and federal levels all agreed that contingency plans and water-use agreements between the seven states and Mexico that rely on the water must be firmed up.

 Why the Colorado River is so important
 The Colorado River Basin covers about 246,000 square miles, including parts of the seven “basin States” of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — and also flows into Mexico. The river supplies drinking water to over 36 million people and irrigates over 15 percent of the nation’s agricultural output.
That is not all the Colorado River does. It also supplies hydro power plants that generate more than 10 billion kilowatt-hours annually, provides recreational benefits from fishing to boating and supports a wide diversity of marine and wildlife habitats and ecosystems.

But as all of us well know, an increasing population, decreasing streamflows, and an uncertain future brought on by climate change and almost 16 years of drought demand that we formulate a better understanding of water use and water availability in the Colorado River Basin.

The legal framework surrounding the Colorado River’s water use

Interestingly, the water management goes back to the 1800s and the discovery of gold in the region. Miners would divert streams to have a source of water to mine their claims, and if someone downstream needed water, negotiations were needed to firm up the water rights.

This soon came to be known as the “Doctrine of Prior Appropriations: the first person who diverted the water has the most senior right and the new individual is not allowed to take water until the first person gets all of their water, according to Audubon.Org.

Since that time, water rights have played a major role in who receives water first and how much of the precious resource they are allowed. There have been a number of water contracts and studies of water usage put into place over the years, all in an attempt to distribute water fairly.

Two important allotment agreements

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 was set into place to govern the allocation of the water rights to the river’s water among the seven states listed above. This compact was so vital and important to the sharing of the water it became known as “the law of the river.” We’ll get back to this compact in a minute.

The second major compact is called Minute 319. It was an extension of humanitarian measures from a 2010 agreement. Minute 318 allowed Mexico to defer delivery of a portion of its Colorado River allotment while the country made repairs to extensive earthquake damaged infrastructures.

Minute 319 is set to expire in December 2017, but there is a clause that says the commission can conclude another agreement in the future to extend or replace the substantive provisions of Minute 319.

Now, we can get back to the Compact of 1922 and where we stand today in relation to the Colorado River and water usage. In 1990, Arizona, California and Nevada consumed all their allocated water from the lower basin. This was the first time that has happened, and it required some rethinking on water allotments strategies.

And now, things that weren’t considered when the compact was drawn up in 1922 have popped up and become of major importance: such issues include environmental factors not recognized almost a century ago, while others, like Indian water rights, were simply side-stepped by compact negotiators back in 1922. The result was that the Law of the River would be in the making for many years to come. Many of those neglected issues are among the most important facing westerners today.

So yes, the new president, whoever wins the election, will have a full plate with just the Colorado River on the table, and that’s not counting all the other problems and issues facing our country.

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