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The 1920s saw the first Western river compacts. However, they didn’t anticipate today’s water problems.

The 1920s saw the first Western river compacts. However, they didn’t anticipate today’s water problems.

A black and white photo shows men in suits gathered around a desk covered with papers

The Western U.S. has a water crisis. CaliforniaTo Nebraska. It is expected that there will be an ongoing drought. Minimum July 2022. Recent research suggests that these conditions might be better labeled Aridification – meaning that warming and drying are long-term trends.

The Colorado River, the country’s two largest reservoirs – Lake PowellAnd Lake Mead – are at their lowest levels in 50 years. This could threaten water supplies for Western states and electricity generation from the massive hydropower turbines embedded in the lakes’ dams. The federal government issued the first-ever “First-ever” August 2021 notice. water shortage declarationFor the Colorado, this means that supply cuts have been made in several other states.

The seven Colorado River Basin states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – signed a water sharing agreement, the Colorado River CompactIn 1922. Some observers call for the renegotiating compact Correct errors and oversights. Colorado and Nebraska are also Argumenting over waterFrom the South Platte River, which they both share below A separate agreement was signed in 1923.

A black and white photo shows men in suits gathered around a desk covered with papers

Delph Carpenter, center, signing the bills that approved the South Platte River compacts and the Colorado River in 1925.
Colorado State University Water Resources Archive, CC BY -ND

My work includes Head Archivist for Colorado State University’s Water Resources ArchiveThis gives me a unique perspective of these conflicts. Our collection includes papers by Delph Carpenter, a lawyer who created the concept of interstate rivers compacts and negotiated both South Platte and Colorado agreements.

Carpenter’s drafts, letters, research and reports show that he believed compacts would reduce litigation, preserve state autonomy and promote the common good. Indeed, Many states use them now. Viewing Carpenter’s documents with hindsight, we can see that interstate river compacts were an innovative solution 100 years ago – but were written for a West far different from today.

Water for development

In the early 1900s, water was plentiful. But there weren’t enough dams, canals or pipelines to store, move or make use of it. Devastating floods in CaliforniaAnd ArizonaPlans to build dams to stop high river flows were encouraged.

Congress gave the Interior Department the authority to develop infrastructure in West to supply water for irrigation with the Reclamation Law of 1902. As the Reclamation ServiceThis was later the powerful Bureau of ReclamationAs the company moved forward, it began planning dams that could also be used to generate hydropower. Development in the West would be driven by low-cost electricity and irrigation water.

Carpenter was concerned about the possibility that downstream states, who are building dams for their own purposes, would also demand water from upstream state. He was especially attuned to this issue as a native of mountainous Colorado, the source of four major rivers – the Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande and the Colorado. Carpenter wanted to see upper basin states “Ensure that you are adequately protected before the construction of the structures upon the lower river.”

Map of the Colorado River basin

The Colorado River runs through seven states in the United States and Mexico to reach the Gulf of California.

Carpenter was also well-versed in interstate water disputes. A group of Nebraska farmers irrigated the Nebraskan landscape in 1916. Colorado sued farmersFor drying the South Platte River at state line. Carpenter was the lead counsel for Colorado in Wyoming v. Colorado, a case that involved the Laramie river and which was filed in 1911 but not resolved until 1922.

Carpenter saw legal battles like a waste of time and money. But when he proposed negotiating interstate river compacts, he was met with “Skepticism, indifference or failure to comprehend are all signs of open ridicule,” he recollected in a 1934 essay.

Carpenter eventually persuaded his Colorado clients that they would resolve their Nebraska litigation by negotiating a compact to share water in the South Platte. It took seven years of data collection and discussion, but Carpenter believed the agreement would ensure “Permanent peace with our neighboring country.”

Or maybe not. Today, Nebraska officials want to Unfinished canals can be revived to pull water from the South Platte in Colorado, citing concerns about Colorado’s numerous planned upstream water projects. With Colorado officials promising to aggressively defend their state’s water rightsThe states could be heading to court.

Colorado Portioning

The Colorado River flows west of the Continental Divide and more than 1,400 miles southwest towards the Gulf of California in Mexico. It was once a lush network with lagoons. Now the river flows more than 1,400 miles southwest to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Peters out in desertBecause states take so much water from it upstream.

The U.S. and Mexico began collaborating in 2014 to restore the ecosystems at the Colorado River Delta.

The West was founded by settlers who believed that the West would be a better place than they had imagined. The seawater was wasted.So people wanted to use it all. California had a bigger population than the other six Colorado River Basin states combined, and Carpenter worried that California’s river use could hinder Colorado under the prior appropriation doctrineThis law states that the first person who uses water is entitled to use it in future. Carpenter feared that the federal government might take over river development after the U.S. Reclamation Service was in Colorado studying dam sites.

Carpenter studied international treaties to learn how to make river compacts. He was aware that the U.S. States had a right under Article 1 Section 10 of The Constitution. U.S. Constitutionto reach agreements with one another. And he believed that solving water conflicts between states required “Statesmanship of the highest order.”

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Officials agreed to his approach in 1920. After the states and federal governments approved legislation authorizing the process, representatives met as the Colorado River Commission in January 1922. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, was the chair. Minutes of a meetingDespite negotiations almost collapsing several times, the goal of rapid river development kept them together.

The commissioners reached agreement within 11 months and adopted the final compact in November 1922. It allocated fixed amounts of water – measured in absolute acre-feet, not percentages of the river’s flow – to the upper and lower basins. This approach was successful in reducing river water levels. major challenge today.

The Interior Department declared a water crisis for the Colorado River in 2021, which triggered supply cuts for Arizona and Nevada as well as Mexico.

At their meetings, the commissioners discussed both the variability of the river’s flow and their Insufficient dataLong-term planning. However, they allowed for the division up of excess water beginning in 1963 in their final agreement. Now we know that they were optimistic Flow numbersMeasured during a particularly rainy period.

Hotter, more crowded West

Carpenter and his contemporaries did not foresee the West facing today’s challenges. In 1922, Hoover imagined that the basin’s population, which It was estimated that 457,000 people were living in 1915., might QuadrupleThe future. Today, the Colorado River supplies some 40 million people – more than 20 times Hoover’s projection.

The commissioners also didn’t anticipate climate change, which is Making the west warmer and drier and shrinking the river’s volume. Some water experts believe a new agreement should be reached. Recognizes an era in which there is a shortage. Others believe renegotiation should be. Politically impossible. The states Signed a drought contingency planningIt is currently in 2019 but it will not end until 2026.

Testifying before Congress in 1926 about the Colorado River Compact, Hoover stated, “If we can provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years we can trust to the generation after the next to be as Intelligent as we are today.” In the face of extreme Western water challenges, it is now up to Westerners to meet – or exceed – that expectation.

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