Colorado River Compact: 11 Things (2024) You Need to Know

The Colorado River is one of the most important sources of water in the Western United States and at the heart of its management is the Colorado River Compact.

This document is a landmark agreement signed in 1922 that divided the river’s water rights between seven states and set the framework for the equitable distribution of its vital resources.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Colorado River Compact, exploring the key facts about this important agreement and its impact on the Western United States.

From its history and evolution to its current status and future prospects, this is your comprehensive guide to the Colorado River Compact.

1. Why the Colorado River Is So Important

The Colorado River is a vital source of water for millions of people and a critical resource for the Western United States.

According to Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, this mighty river provides water to 40 million people in the US and Mexico and irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of land, supporting a thriving agricultural industry and feeding the growing population of the region.

In addition, the Colorado River is also a critical water source for 30 federally recognized Tribes, providing the foundation for their cultural and economic livelihoods.

Astonishingly, 70% of the Colorado River’s water is utilized for agricultural purposes, which is a testament to its significance as a key resource for food production in the region.

The “Law of the River” encompasses an intricate set of regulations and policies that dictate activity along the Colorado River.

At the heart of this body of laws is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a cornerstone agreement that established the framework for the equitable distribution of water rights and has been instrumental in preventing conflicts between the states over water resources.

2. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 Divided the River Into Two Basins

With a length of 1,400 miles and a basin spanning approximately 250,000 square miles, the Colorado River is truly a magnificent and essential resource, and the Compact is the cornerstone of its responsible and sustainable management.

The river and its basin are divided into two parts, with the Upper Colorado River Basin being the source of nearly 90% of the water.

The Upper Basin is comprised of the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin is made up of Arizona, California, and Nevada.

3. California Was the First State To “Effectively” Use the River

The Colorado River was a source of great concern for the seven states in its basin.

California was quick to utilize the river for irrigation, causing fear among the other states who were worried that their share of the river would be compromised.

The law of prior appropriation, which states that the first user of water has priority rights in times of shortage, only intensified these fears.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1922 ruling in Wyoming v. Colorado further solidified the need for an agreement between the states to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation.

In an effort to mitigate the potential for conflict, the Colorado River Commission was formed in January 1922 with the purpose of negotiating an agreement to divide the river equitably among the seven states.

4. Purpose of The Colorado River Compact of 1922 Agreement

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 was born out of a need for the seven basin states to come to a consensus on how to allocate the river’s water rights.

The Colorado River Authority of Utah reports that the first article in the Colorado River Compact mentions that the purpose of the 1922 agreement is “to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System.”

With California’s growth causing concern among the other states, and a Supreme Court ruling that the law of prior appropriation applied across state lines, the states saw the need to establish an interstate compact to avoid federal intervention and costly litigation.

In response to these concerns, the Colorado River Commission was convened in January 1922 in Washington, D.C. under the leadership of future president Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce.

Despite initial discussions and negotiations, the states were unable to agree on a water allocation plan.

It wasn’t until November 9th, 1922, when delegates from the seven basin states met in New Mexico, that the Compact was finally worked out and signed on November 24th at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.

Upon Hoover’s proposition, the Colorado River was officially partitioned into Upper and Lower Basins at Lee Ferry in Arizona through the Compact.

It apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River system to each of the Upper and Lower Basins, providing a fair allocation of water rights for future development in both regions.

This landmark agreement not only prevented conflicts between the states over water resources, but it also allowed for planning and development to proceed in the Lower Basin while preserving water for future growth in the Upper Basin.

5. The Colorado River Basin Was Stolen by Law

The creation of the Colorado River compact in the early 1900s was a momentous event that would shape the future of the American Southwest.

However, the negotiation and implementation of the compact came at the cost of denying tribal nations any representation or consideration.

This was a stark violation of their sovereignty as sovereign entities with rights superior to state governments.

The tribes within the Colorado River watershed, numbering 30 in total, were not consulted or included in the negotiations for the compact, even though the Supreme Court had established the tribes’ water rights in the Winters v. United States ruling fourteen years prior.

The ruling established that the federal government had reserved water rights for tribes when it reserved land for them and that these rights would be senior to the rights of states.

Even if they did not use the water efficiently, they had rights to the water.

The only recognition of the tribes’ existence in the compact was a single sentence that stated that “Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.”

This meant that tribal water rights would be counted against the respective states’ shares, as confirmed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Arizona v. California in 1963.

As a result, tribes in the Lower Basin have quantified and settled for around 2 million acre-feet of water, while tribes in the Upper Basin have settled for 1.1 million acre-feet.

However, rights remain unquantified and unresolved for a dozen more tribes.

The Navajo Nation, for instance, is entitled to over 5 million acre-feet of water with an 1868 appropriation date, but so far only a small portion of this has been quantified and resolved.

The exclusion of tribal nations from the compact was a severe violation of their sovereignty and set the stage for future conflicts over water rights.

As the collective users of the Colorado River face the need to cut their consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, they will also need to find additional water to honor the unresolved tribal water rights.

6. More Water Was Allocated to The States Than Was Actually in The River

The Colorado River Compact promised a perpetual allocation of 16 million acre-feet of water from the river, which was expected to be enough to water all the lands that could be economically developed for forty years to come.

However, this agreement turned out to be problematic, as the river didn’t have enough water to begin with.

In the nine years prior to the compact’s ratification, the US Geological Survey recorded an average annual discharge of just 17.3 million acre-feet.

However, the measurements were taken during an unusually wet period.

In fact, the true flow of the river was likely much less.

Eugene C. LaRue, a leading expert on the Colorado River, compiled a report for the USGS in 1916, which warned against the allocation of the river’s water.

His research showed that the river’s flow was not sufficient to irrigate all the lands in the basin and that complete control of the stream waters in the Upper Basin would create a shortage of about 3.8 million acre-feet in the supply available for the Lower Basin.

LaRue also advised against building the Hoover Dam and suggested banning trans-basin diversions of water.

Despite his warnings, the compact was signed anyway.

He wasn’t happy. In protest, he resigned.

Just a decade after the compact was signed, a prolonged drought hit the region, proving LaRue’s predictions correct.

Tree-ring investigations in the 1940s showed that the river historically carried less than 14 million acre-feet per year, 30% less than the amount on which the compact was based.

This shortage has only grown over time, with the longest stretch of dry years in over a millennium starting in the late 1990s.

California natives are no strangers to the phrase “the drought” – a painful reminder of the state’s ever-increasing water crisis.

Year after year, Californians continue to feel the crippling effects of this shortage and its aftermath.

It’s why California’s residents can’t even water their lawn without getting a ticket in some circumstances.

This goes to show that the compact’s promises were simply unattainable, and the lack of foresight has led to significant water shortages in the Colorado River Basin.

7. Mexico Is Entitled to Part of The Colorado River Basin

Mexico, like the other seven states in the Colorado River Basin, is entitled to a share of the river’s water.

The 1922 agreement established a minimum water allotment for Mexico, setting a precedent for future negotiations.

According to article 10 of the 1944 Water Treaty between the United States and Mexico, Mexico is guaranteed a minimum annual delivery of 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water.

This agreement was established to ensure a stable and secure water supply for both nations, as the Colorado River serves as a crucial source of water for agriculture, industry, and urban areas on both sides of the border.

However, the vast overestimation of water in the Colorado River in the 1922 compact resulted in negative consequences for Mexico.

Mexico has not always received its full allotment due to various factors such as overestimation, drought, and overuse of water in the United States.

This has led to a growing concern for water scarcity and the need for a more equitable distribution of the river’s resources.

Mexico had relied on receiving not only its guaranteed allocation of water but also surplus water from the river.

The disappointment of not receiving enough water resulted in the deterioration of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, with only a fraction of the original ecosystem remaining today.

In recent years, efforts have been made to increase cooperation and coordination between the two countries, including joint management and conservation initiatives.

It is important to note that the Colorado River is a shared resource, and its sustainable management requires collaboration and cooperation between the United States and Mexico.

As the population in the region continues to grow, and the demand for water increases, finding a way to sustainably manage the river’s resources will become even more crucial.

Mexico’s entitlement to a share of the Colorado River Basin highlights the need for a comprehensive approach to water management that considers the needs of all stakeholders, including the environment and future generations.

8. Hydroelectric Developments Were Achieved Due to The Compact

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 played a critical role in the development of hydroelectric power in the western United States.

The allocation of water resources in the Compact enabled the construction of large dams such as the Hoover Dam and the Glen Canyon Dam, which not only helped control the flow of the river but also provided a source of clean and reliable energy.

The Hoover Dam, for example, was built on the border of Nevada and Arizona in the 1930s and became one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world at that time.

The dam harnesses the power of the Colorado River to generate electricity, providing energy to millions of people in the southwestern United States.

The Glen Canyon Dam, located in northern Arizona, also generates hydroelectric power and provides water for irrigation in the region.

The construction of these dams and the availability of hydroelectric power transformed the western United States, bringing much-needed electricity and water resources to a region that was growing rapidly.

9. Dams Were Constructed to Assist With Flood Control

The Colorado River has been known for its inconsistent water flow, with significant variations between years and seasons.

To address this issue, it was imperative to implement measures for flood control in order to effectively manage water resources and support development along the river’s path.

The Colorado River Compact brought together the seven basin states to coordinate and regulate the use of the river’s resources, which led to several dams being erected to help control the flow of water.

This helped not only contain water during flooding and for hydroelectric power but to also store large quantities of water for later use during times of scarcity.

This flood control system ensures the proper management of water resources, thereby supporting the growth and sustainability of the communities along the river.

10. Farmers and Ranchers Rely on The Colorado River

Farmers and ranchers who live in the states along the Colorado River rely on it as a vital source of water for their crops and livestock.

The river provides irrigation to thousands of acres of fertile farmland and is essential for the livelihoods of those who depend on agriculture for their income.

Without the Colorado River, many farming and ranching communities would be unable to sustain their operations, causing a ripple effect through the local and regional economies.

11. The Colorado River Supplies Drinking Water

The Colorado River is a vital source of drinking water for millions of people in the American Southwest.

Communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming all rely on the river to provide clean and safe water for household use, agriculture, and industry.

With the rate these communities are growing, the demand for water is expected to increase, making the Colorado River an even more valuable resource.

Final Thoughts

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 plays a crucial role in the management and allocation of the river’s water resources.

It established the division of the river’s water between the Upper and Lower Basin states and ensures that these state governments are collaborating on how to best use and protect this vital resource.

Despite its importance, the compact has faced challenges such as water shortage, over-allocation, and environmental degradation, highlighting the need for an ongoing effort to sustainably manage this vital resource.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants, or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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