Could the Colorado River Compact adapt to go with the flow?

Buoys sit on the beach near the Wahweap Marina at Lake Powell on March 28 in Page, Ariz. /Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By Jennifer Yachnin | E&E News Greenwire

Dwindling flows in the Colorado River Basin are stirring discussions about whether a 100-year-old agreement that governs how that water is divided needs to be overhauled. But there may be another option: don’t rewrite the law, instead reinterpret it.

Despite its status as the cornerstone of the “Law of the River” — the various agreements that dictate how the water is managed between seven basin states and Mexico — some key provisions in the Colorado River Compact remain unsettled.

“There are a lot of unresolved questions and much more complexity then you frequently read in the newspaper about characterizations of the compact,” Anne Castle, a former Interior Department assistant secretary for water and science, explained in March at the University of Utah’s Wallace Stegner Center annual symposium.

Those open questions — including key provisions like how much water the Upper Basin states must ensure reach the Lower Basin states — have gained new attention during persistent drought in the West as the 1922 compact approaches its centennial anniversary.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently grabbed headlines for declaring that a new compact is needed to address Western aridification, a change from his previous position that the compact should remain in place (Greenwire, May 20).

But a new compact would require a time-consuming, potentially fraught, political process, featuring interstate negotiations and then state legislative and congressional approvals.

That’s why as the Bureau of Reclamation looks to begin work on the Colorado River Basin’s post-2025 operating plan, some observers suggest now is the time to instead rethink how states interpret the compact’s existing language, and apply those new definitions going forward. Those tweaks could ensure the seven states share the burden of a smaller river equally, alleviating potentially significant cuts to water use in the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.  

Under the compact, the upper basin states and the lower basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — are allowed to utilize 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. The compact also grants the lower basin states the rights to an additional 1 million acre-feet of water.

The compact also mandates that the upper basin states cannot reduce flows to the lower basin states — a division marked by Lee Ferry on the Colorado River — below 75 million acre-feet every 10 years.

But while those divisions appear relatively straightforward, some experts say the reality of the compact is much more complicated.

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