Reinterpreting the Colorado River Compact for the 21st Century – by Allen Best


In late May, I stood on the lip of Glen Canyon Dam, peering over the concrete rim to study the receding waters of Lake Powell. The tank was 75% empty.

Below I saw what appeared to be train tracks in a bench along the canyon wall. Acting dam director Gus Levy said they were remnants of a concrete plant created to build the dam in the early 1960s. They had emerged in February, the first time in nearly 60 years they were above water.

The now long and worsening 21st century drought, coupled with aridification, has highlighted problems in the pact governing allocations between the seven states of the Colorado River Basin. A clause in the Colorado River Compact seems to oblige the upstream states to take all the responsibility for the reduction in flows caused by climate change.

Now comes an important voice advising a new vision. Bruce BAbbitt, two-time governor of Arizona and then secretary of the interior in the Clinton administration, says it’s time to revisit that requirement.

“While I once thought these aridification scenarios were pretty abstract and far in the future, I don’t think so anymore,” Babbitt said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“It is absolutely urgent that we start thinking now, while there is time, on how we will adjust the pact, the regulations, the necessary reductions, in the most careful way in order to limit the damage, which can really be extreme.”

“Huge,” tweeted Eric Kuhn, former Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District manager, after Babbitt’s remarks were published.

States that divide the flow of the Colorado River. Image courtesy of Mission 20212 Clean Water.

At Boulder Law School’s Getches-Wikinson Center next week, a lecture titled “Hard Conversations about Really Complex Issues” will pick up exactly what will constitute the thoughtful approach that Babbitt advises. The river and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people and some of its most productive farms in seven states.

Delegates from the basin states who met in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1922 assumed that the river would supply about 20 million acre-feet per year. It was unfairly optimistic. There was already evidence of climatic fluctuations. The 20th century largely failed to meet these expectations, and the 21st century was even more stingy, offering 17% less.

Jeff Lukas, a Lafayette-based climatologist who will speak at the conference, warns that even less water is to be expected in the coming decades.

“If I were forced to pick numbers now, I would go with 7% to 25% lower by mid-century and 13% to 33% lower by the 2080s,” Lukas said.

An end to the natural drought could improve water flows, he adds, but to some extent. Several studies attribute about half of the decline in fluxes to human-caused greenhouse gases.

“But you don’t have to have a dire view of the future to know that the pact’s hydrological assumptions and subsequent allocations are unworkable in the future,” he says. “I think the last 22 years alone have demonstrated that quite clearly.”

Since 2007, the states of the basin have been patching up the pact with new agreements. A new sense of cooperation and shared sacrifice became evident. Still intact is that searing stipulation that Colorado and the other three upper basin states “will not cause the river flow at Lees Ferry to drop by approximately 75 million acre-feet on average for any period of 10 consecutive years. … ”

A sharp photo of a corner of Lake Powell showing reservoir depletion. It is fed by the Colorado River. MU

Lees Ferry is located in Arizona, above the Grand Canyon. Upstream 15 miles is the Glen Canyon Dam, which generates hydroelectric power consumed in Basalt and Edwards as well as many other towns and farms in Colorado. However, the reservoir allows the upper basin states to reliably supply water to the lower basin states and Mexico.

Brad Udall of the Water Institute at Colorado State University says the pact needs to be reinterpreted, not renegotiated. He thinks the delegates from the upper basin states who helped draft the pact a century ago would never have agreed to a fixed obligation in a changed climate. Assuming it now also violates common sense.

Nineteenth-century thinking was rooted in winners and losers, he says. Today, the intertwined economies of Southwestern states need solutions that maximize certainty even as water volume declines.

“The only thing that makes sense to me is that the two basins share this fundamental risk of lower flows, and I think that’s a key part of a reinterpretation of the pact in the 21st century.”

Runoff from last winter’s snowstorms, if again below average, likely flooded the trails I saw in Glen Canyon again in May. They will not stay submerged. Colorado River forecasters expect a resumption of Powell’s decline later this year. In January, it will be 80% empty.

Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, which focuses on climate change and related changes in energy, water and agriculture. See

Featured Image: Glen Canyon Dam in Upper Colorado with a hydroelectric plant. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.


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