Estimated read time: 21-22 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The place was Bishop's Lodge, a secluded outpost outside of Santa Fe at the end of a winding rough road in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was selected just over 100 years ago by the man who only nine years later would be president of the United States during one of the nation's most challenging eras, the Great Depression.
But during that month, November 1922, Herbert Hoover brought together representatives from the seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin — Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
The remote location was selected with purpose, to avoid distraction, nothing to deter the representatives from their negotiations. How else to best predict an unpredictable future of growth in the arid West and carve up water rights to satisfy each thirsty state?
Three of the seven states' commissioners could not make it to the day's first meeting, originally set for Nov. 9, due to travel problems, and so Hoover seized on that opportunity to trim the guest list — from four people per room down to two, according to Colorado River experts John Fleck and Eric Kuhn in a post published on the same date this year.
It was the commission's first meeting in seven months — and a last hope — that they could hammer out an agreement absent the U.S. Supreme Court's interference. They'd been given a year, according to a law authorizing the negotiations that would establish the water rights. And by the end of the month, on Nov. 24, they had their deal — a four-page document to allocate the water of the Colorado River, which would be formally ratified 22 years later.
It marked the first time more than three states would come together to divide a river and assign its resources to the participating states and Mexico. The compact, through a series of regulations, litigation and state and federal laws, became the cornerstone of what is known as the "Law of the River," or the overarching governance of the now struggling river.
What is the Colorado River Compact?
The Santa Fe meeting put in motion plans for the construction of Hoover Dam and formation of Lake Mead to serve as a water savings account for the Lower Basin. It is the largest human-made reservoir in the nation, followed by Lake Powell, which serves the same purpose for the Upper Basin.
What those architects of the compact didn't know, however, is that the water was divvied up during an unusually wet year, and given those conditions, they predicted there would always be enough water.
They did not count on drought, climate change, environmental flow requirements, the many, many diversions, and its overallocation supporting the fastest growing area of the United States — the very arid southwest.
A century later, if the drought-stricken, over-diverted Colorado River were a patient, it would be in critical condition in the intensive care unit of a hospital. There, a bevy of specialists — the seven basin states, Mexico and the Native American tribes who rely on its water — would be hovering over it searching for remedies to heal it. But can all agree on the course of treatment?
Less water to farmers? Less water to cities? Will painful cuts be spread throughout the basin, amplifying operational changes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has already made? Will California, the breadbasket of the United States, be forced to reduce its use of the Colorado River like other basin states? Potential solutions abound, but there is not one approach that will solve this monstrosity of a problem.
At the helm of the healing plan, the lead doctor, or the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, would be issuing strong edicts and even stronger warnings that the others had better get with the next steps, or there will be unilateral action absent any of their input.
The problem with the Colorado River Compact
"We had a year this year where we got 97% of normal snowpack. That's an average year. But the runoff was 58% of average," says Wayne Pullan, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's regional director of the Upper Colorado River Basin.
"The thing that has happened is we have increased evaporation and as we have had drier years, higher temperatures, drier soils, all that snowpack is going into the ground, not into the streams, the reservoirs."
"Mother Nature certainly has the capacity to start sending us abundant years, but we do not have the luxury of counting on that."
In his role, Pullan is arguably one of the most powerful people representing the interests of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico when it comes to Colorado River water.
Pullan leads 800 reclamation employees who manage 82 projects and dams, including 19 hydroelectric power plants. Those facilities provide water to approximately 5.7 million people living in the region and electricity for almost 6 million power users via Glen Canyon Dam.
Since the Colorado River Compact was forged 100 years ago and the water was subsequently divided up among the entire seven states in the Upper and Lower basins, as well as Mexico and 30 tribes, the Upper Basin has been tasked with the contractual obligation to allow 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to flow downstream to its partners each year.
"The obligation under the compact is a long-term obligation," Pullan said. "And we have not only met that but we have generally been ahead of that."
Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, said the situation on the river is critical.
"We are looking right now at a system that is severely distressed," she said. "It is way out of balance."
"We're trying to chase hydrology and we are coming up with some very short-term solutions."
- In May, the Bureau of Reclamation in an historic first, adjusted operations at Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam, cutting releases to the Lower Basin states by a half million acre-feet and taking another half million acre-feet from upstream Flaming Gorge to preserve hydropower generation at the dam.
- Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin, as well as Mexico, will face reductions in their share of Colorado River beginning in January, although California — which takes the biggest share of the water — has not yet had to face cuts.
- Earlier this year, the bureau told all seven basin states they must conserve up to 4 million acre-feet of water consumption next year from the Colorado River, or the federal government will take more action.
The dire condition of the Colorado River
If this sounds dire, it is because it is, with increasing challenges for the overallocated, 1,450-mile river that has a 244,000-square-mile drainage and is sixth in the nation for its volume of flows.
It is called the "lifeblood" of the arid southwest and diversions along the way support booming populations along Utah's Wasatch Front, Denver, Phoenix and Southern California.
As the hydrological conditions grow worse year after year due to an historic drought and water shortages have become the new reality, the 40 million residents who rely on the Colorado River need a comprehensive, proactive plan, like more conservation, active reliance of reuse water to ward off what could be drastic impacts and more efficient use of water in agriculture.
Beyond those residents, the river irrigates 5.5 million agricultural acres of land — including 15% of American agriculture, about 90% of the nation's winter vegetables — and plays an essential role in supporting diverse ecosystems, aquatic species, wildlife and recreation.
But much like a patient with arrhythmia and clogged arteries, or one with an aggressive form of cancer, to do nothing for the river is to prolong the pain and suffer the consequences.
Farmers and ranchers rely on the Colorado River
Kelby Iverson has cut the size of his cattle herd in half.
"There's no rain, no grass. And then hallelujah, it started raining and we have had a really, really, really good month," he said earlier this summer. "It set up us to look really nice for this fall, but we are definitely not out of the woods."
Agriculture uses 85% of Colorado River water and is often criticized by environmental advocates who say less thirsty crops — grown in place of hay and alfalfa — should be planted. But if Utah farmers don't grow food for the livestock, who will? And what will transportation cost to bring in that feed?
Iverson, a Hurricane rancher, has been struggling to keep on with a tradition started by his family generations ago when they first homesteaded this area.
He is a study in contrasts.
He worked for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, his grandfather was one of its founders, and he personally worked on a lot of projects to bring water to this arid part of the state, drawing on the shrinking Colorado River.
Iverson has been trying to hang onto the water he has, but he has also been a developer, sucking water out of the area.
"Are we going to keep digging this hole, or are we going to balance things out a bit?"
The river supplies roughly a third of the water in Southern California and supports a large farming industry in Imperial and Riverside counties. It is the breadbasket for the United States, which, for example, supplies 90% of the world's almonds.
To that end, federal and state governments have encouraged farmers and ranchers to take advantage of funding that boosts the efficiency of water deliveries by using smart technology. It is a process that takes time and is impractical in some areas, however. One such method is to abandon flood irrigation in favor of automated watering systems.
Iverson gets it.
But he gets his back up when agriculture is the only seeming target, because it goes to self sufficiency, supply issues, and food and fiber.
"If I save 50% of my water, but I don't have any farm ground to put it on ... I just got a 50% haircut because I was more efficient. And I don't get any more compensation because I took that cut for the water I own. Where does it go?"
Same story, different area
Some 348 miles away from Kelby Iverson's ranch in Washington County, David Evans is feeling the same pain in a dusty, dried up region that can be lush with the splendor of vegetation and bubbling streams.
The drought changed that.
The river he relies on has gone dry, nothing but stones left behind where water used to run.
He has been ranching here in a little Utah town called Arcadia in Duchesne County for going on 50 years. Evans battled pneumonia this year and had to have neighbors help him bring in the crop — what there was to bring in. The pneumonia wasn't the only thing making him feel sick.
"I don't know if we are going to make it or not. It's dreadful."
Evans says 2022 is the worst drought he's seen. It has been a nightmare, an unrelenting poltergeist driving farmers to extinction. He talks of neighbors who are considering walking away, abandoning the long tradition of farming. The only way his family makes it is that he and his wife have jobs independent of farming. Many ranchers and farmers aren't so lucky and have sold off to developers.
Like Iverson in Washington County, Evans hangs on to his spread and share of Colorado River water, even as he sees the options of becoming more difficult as he battles drought.
He clings to his own little piece of paradise, driven by the idea that somehow, someway he can make a difference, and pass on a cherished tradition even in the wake of a challenged Colorado River.
"I am sitting on the front gate of my place as we are talking," he said by phone, mentioning a friend who stopped by to visit.
His friend him told him he was the luckiest man in the world.
"I said 'how do you figure that?' and he said 'because look at this place. You got all these trees you have this this river bottom country that has trees and rocks and green vegetation.'"
Until it goes away.
How the Colorado River supplies drinking water
Most Utah residents don't know about the tie between their drinking water and the Colorado River.
The state does not directly put a "straw" in the river, but instead uses its tributaries to supply drinking water to millions. The tap occurs over the Wasatch Mountain range at a drainage and through a series of tunnels, pipelines and other collection systems rolled up in a complex infrastructure. Water flows to Strawberry Reservoir, a huge holding tank of water supplies for residents, some of which is delivered to the Wasatch Front.
From start to finish, from the time a drop of Colorado River water hits a high mountain dam called Upper Stillwater and goes on to fill Strawberry, it travels 148 miles to quench taps, orchards and more to Utah's booming metropolitan population.
"We provide supplemental water to the Wasatch Front," said Bart Leeflang, with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District . "There's probably 1.2 million to 3 million people who may not realize when they turn on their tap, they are drinking Colorado River water that could have otherwise ended up in the Gulf of California. I don't think a lot of people realize that Colorado River water allows for stability in our water supply."
Without it, he added, Utah's vibrancy as we know it would be a question mark.
Former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert once said that water is the only limiting factor to the state's growth and viability.
All of eastern Utah's communities, Washington County and portions of the Wasatch Front depend on Colorado River water by tapping its tributaries. The Virgin River, one of those tributaries, serving Washington County is its sole source of water for what the U.S. Census Bureau deemed the fastest growing area in the United States.
Conflict surrounds the Colorado River
Across the basin, the Colorado River supports a $15 billion agricultural industry and uses an estimated 80% of the river's water from the seven basin states. Growing water for thirsty crops like hay and almonds — great drains on the system — have put tremendous pressure on agriculture to make reforms.
But as the Colorado River shrinks and cities grow, it gives birth to a debate over the best and wisest use of its scarce resources. It's a conflict because some of these farming families stretch back generations, having secured water rights before municipalities were even a dream in the eye of urban development planners hungry for growth and the desire to foster West-wide expansion.
With growth comes cost: the destruction of natural resources, critical animal and fauna put in peril, Native American tribes left short of their allowance of water.
Dams and diversions along the Colorado River have changed the ecology and topography of the West, leading environmental critics to call for change, with some arguing that Lake Powell should be drained to unveil Glen Canyon in its natural state.
When asked if he thought the shrinking Lake Powell will be drained, Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute replied: "The likelihood is so high that it would be foolish not to prepare for it."
Balken's institute has long advocated draining Lake Powell, which it contends has been the most destructive force in the Colorado River Basin.
"I think the world is really starting to see Glen Canyon for Glen Canyon. Like even all these people who are clearly big Lake Powell fans, like they're sitting there in awe looking at a cathedral in the desert. Like it's undeniable. How beautiful ... and there are of course a bunch of challenges and problems that come with it," he said. "It was such a tragedy to lose it the first time, it would be an even greater tragedy to lose it a second time."
But letting Lake Powell go dry is not an option, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — which insists operational changes to the river will help basin states and the tribes climb out of this mess.
Late this year, the Bureau of Reclamation released some dire scenarios in which either Lake Powell or Lake Mead could drop below what is called "power pool," thus ending power generation. The acknowledgement speaks to the seriousness of the situation on the Colorado River and the dams' role in producing power, and amplifies the need to make adjustments, and to do so fairly quickly.
Lake Powell is a literal pipeline for growth in Utah's Washington County and would be the starting point of a state-approved project that would deliver more than 80,000 acre-feet of water over time from the Colorado River via the reservoir to prop up water supply. The Lake Powell Pipeline is wildly controversial, but ardently supported by its defenders. The dam at Lake Powell's Glen Canyon also supplies power generation to millions in the West, mostly rural communities.
What is the future of the Lake Powell Pipeline?
Even though the Washington County Water Conservancy District and the state of Utah won't back down from the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, the county pursued water saving strategies over the summer.
The steps are projected to save nearly 11 billion gallons of water, or about 33,757 acre-feet, in the next 10 years — but will it be enough?
Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, is half optimist and half pessimist.
Planning for future water use and future growth is a monumental task, creating engineering solutions that take decades to fulfill.
"We can look at how these cities are growing in our district and we can assume they will continue at a fast pace," he said. "And that is the tough thing with water. ... Water projects are unique in that it can take 10 or even 20 years before a project comes online."
Critics say the pipeline is a fantasy.
"In the most critical water year ever, the response from most of the water managers was essentially, a state of surrender. Utah, on the other hand, decided to charge into the battlefield of absurdity," said John Weisheit, co-founder of Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper.
Multiple critics say the $3 billion pipeline is a financial boondoggle.
"With the entire Colorado River Basin in crisis mode, it's laughable that Utah would even think about moving forward with a new diversion from the river," said Balken, of the Glen Canyon Institute.
Renstrom disputes the accusations over the viability of the project, although he does concede climate change is a big "variable" and the drought will likely get worse before it gets better.
But he argues current conditions will not and should not derail what he says is Utah's rightful development of its share of Colorado River water.
"Even the worst of the worst climate change models are showing that there is still water in the Colorado River and Utah is going to be entitled to a portion of that water," he said. "I can tell you from a water standpoint, there will be building moratoriums that will occur if we don't get the Lake Powell Pipeline. And we take that very seriously down here and that is why we are very, very actively working on it."
What will happen to the Colorado River?
So what does the future hold?
Can the compact stand? Has it outlived its utility given current conditions?
Most officials in the basin states say it is the best working agreement out there and to send it back to the table means involving Congress.
Tensions are already brewing over the use of the water.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a 9th Circuit Court decision that said the Navajo Nation has a right to take more water from the Colorado River.
Water scarcity is already setting up a fight between a Colorado water district on the Western Slope and California. The district is accusing the state of relinquishing too little of its share of Colorado River and wanting compensation on top of that.
The condition on the river sets up a political boxing ring as the states, Mexico, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Native tribes cling to their respective corners to fight for their interests.
Will the Colorado River survive the infighting? Will it survive the current state of hydrology or will a new variation of the hydrology mean a call for hope?
It's hard to say. But the Colorado River has been around for six million years and had the strength to carve out the Grand Canyon. That should not be overlooked.
Drought takes a toll on the Colorado River
Lake Powell is at its lowest level since it first began filling with water from the Colorado River in the 1960s, and its 1,300 megawatts of power generation is in jeopardy.
In May, the bureau took an historic step of reducing downstream delivery by 500,000 acre-feet and releasing an additional 500,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge to prop up power generation at Glen Canyon Dam, keeping the lights on for millions of people.
Pullan, the Bureau of Reclamation regional director, said what is key to surviving this new reality on the Colorado River is operational flexibility, established with the 2007 interim guidelines, additional drought contingency planning and a new 24-month study that came out in August that will guide future decisions on operations in 2023.
In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton warned a Senate committee that the seven basin states need to scramble to come up with water-saving strategies to conserve as much as 4 million-acre feet in the Colorado River Basin. And they need to do it soon, or the federal government will do it for them.
The Colorado River is already operating at a deficit in the Lower Basin states, despite the Upper Basin allowing its contractual 7.5 million acre-feet of water to reach the Lower Basin.
Pullan said that deficit is a result of the more rapid development of water resources in the Lower Basin states than what happened in the Upper Basin, which gets accused of overusing its share.
"The need for water was developed much faster in the Lower Basin and much earlier than it was done in the Upper Basin," he said. "As a result, things have become tighter in the Lower Basin earlier than it did in the Upper Basin."
Fear and optimism about the Colorado River's future
It's nearly universally agreed that at the time the Colorado River water was split among the states, tribes and Mexico, the region was enjoying a bountiful hydrological year. The division of water has come under scrutiny, prompted by a smack in the face of the region's best intentions by Mother Nature who has inflicted unrelenting drought over two decades and in the face of rapid growth.
Pullan said the drought will force new water-saving strategies throughout the West and even more cooperation — which he firmly believes can be achieved.
"What we count on is the tradition of cooperation in the Colorado River. The ability for states, tribes, Mexico, the Bureau of Reclamation and other federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations who have an interest in recreation and environmental issues to be able to work together and to craft solutions that will serve us long term."
He emphasized that if there's something people should know about the Colorado River, it's that there is a tradition of agreement stretching back 100 years and more cooperation to come.
"I think one of those things is the cooperative ethos of the Colorado River," he said. "The states, the federal government, came together and put together a compact that wasn't perfect, but it has been able to guide us for 100 years. Our ability to cooperate has allowed us to address inadequacies in the compact."
The 2007 interim guidelines issued by the bureau were critical, and now this next step of a 24-month study out in August that is another milestone for cities, communities, states, tribes and environmental advocates to make similar operational adjustments moving forward in a new climate reality. The study and guidelines are intended to guide operations on the river in the ensuing years.
Pullan noted the historic improbability of seven states with competing interests coming to the table with federal agencies in an agreement ultimately endorsed by congressional action.
"If you look at other rivers in the United States and elsewhere they are litigious and they are characterized by conflict. The compact has served as a great foundation and it would be unwise to discard that foundation," he said. "To go back and say 100 years ago that people didn't anticipate everything we would face and to criticize them, it's like shooting fish in a bucket. It is awfully easy to do."