The Problem with Changing the Colorado River Compact

The U.S. government is about to decide on Colorado River water allocations and the decisions they make will impact all Americans. We all must pay attention to the decisions because it is crucial in many ways. First, the decision may alter the Colorado River Compact agreed to and signed in 1922. This agreement between states on handling water from the Colorado River is over 100 years old. If you need clarification on the value of the compact, you can read about it here. This country has a limited history of reversing or changing agreements. Changes to the agreement mean changes in water allocations and changes in food availability. A change in water availability severely impacts the cities receiving cutbacks. For example, fewer people will want to live or move there. Finally, water reductions will impact ecosystems and wildlife populations.

Last month, officials laid the groundwork for substantial cuts in the amount of water delivered to Arizona, Nevada, and California. More specifically, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California. The cuts impact the cities as well as many farms. For example, growers in the Imperial Valley in California use more water than Arizona and Nevada combined. As a result, the Imperial Valley supplies 80% of the country’s fresh winter vegetables and fruits. In addition, there are 5.5 million acres of irrigated land in the desert Southwest. These are challenging decisions to make.

Didn’t All The Rain In California Solve The Problem

The West, particularly California, is dealing with a 23-year megadrought. This past winter California experienced historic rain and snow. The Upper Colorado River basin snow pact is currently 162% of the 30-year average. This is excellent news temporarily; however, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are so low, combined at about 26%. Lake Powell is estimated to end the year at 39% capacity, and Lake Mead is estimated to finish the year at around 35% of capacity. This is a start but not a solution. We need much more snow over many years to improve the damage from 23 years of drought.

What Is SEIS

The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) is a draft Federal plan providing several options for California, Arizona, and Nevada for cutting water use. One option is to offer equal cuts to the three states. The second would enforce the current agreement, which protects California. It would likely not impose restrictions on California because of its senior water rights, and Nevada and Arizona would make significant reductions. Finally, they could take no action and push this decision to another time. This last solution is also the problem we are experiencing now. We need to make solid decisions, budget appropriately (this may mean raising state taxes a little for catchment solutions), and plan for a continued drought better-called aridification of the West.

After a public comment period, a final decision on the Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal is expected in August, after a public comment period, and will affect the 2024 operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. The draft proposal is available HERE.


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