Colorado River Compact Needs 21st Century Update

While the historic agreement set a new precedent for water rights, its inherent flaws, growing demand, and the threat of climate change make much of it obsolete for today’s needs.

2 minute read

November 16, 2022, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

"No Boats" sign on dry Lake Mead bed

James Marvin Phelps / Dry boat launch area at Lake Mead

The first treaty in U.S. history to bring together more than two states, the Colorado River Compact turns one hundred this month. But, as Jonathan Thompson writes in High Country News, the historic seven-state agreement is “showing its age,” no longer a viable document for addressing the water shortage facing communities along the Colorado River today.

The article analyzes the compact’s history, its most relevant provisions, and how today’s policymakers can redress the mistakes made in those early days and plan for a more resilient future. The treaty was full of holes from the beginning, Thompson explains. “Tribal nations were not only left out of the Compact and negotiations, but their senior and therefore stronger water rights were discounted altogether.” Thompson asserts that “The exclusion was far worse than a gross oversight; it was a blatant attack on tribal sovereignty.”

Thompson adds that the compact was based on flawed or purposely misleading assumptions about water supplies and needs. Yet “The document’s framers never even considered the possibility that the river’s flows would diminish over time, as is now the case thanks to climate-change-induced aridification.” The original document allocated 16 million acre-feet of water “in perpetuity” to irrigation, calling it 80 percent of the river’s flow, a conscious overestimate even at the time. 

According to Thompson, “Now that it’s reaching its centennial, perhaps it’s time for the Colorado River Compact to retire, and for the river’s users — all of them — to sit down and negotiate a new pact for a changing world.”

Friday, November 11, 2022 in High Country News

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