Guest opinion: Colorado River challenges are ‘Herculean’ and will bring shared pain across western states

Ken Neubecker
Ken Neubecker on the river with Gus.

Much has been written lately about the current “crisis” on the Colorado river. It is a crisis many years in the making and only recently has made national headlines. I’ve been involved with Colorado River water issues for a long time. Many suggested solutions are overly simplistic with little understanding of the long history of the Colorado River. That history is complex.

While there may be seemingly simple solutions from engineers, lawyers and politicians will be deeply involved as they were in 1922 when the Colorado River Compact was created, when they overrode the data and objective advise of the engineers in favor of optimistic boosterism.

The situation on the Colorado River is a national emergency. But water rights are governed by state laws and traditions, not by the Federal Government. The Western States and the Federal Government have a long contentious history with water that still remains deeply embedded in western politics and attitudes. In Colorado water is owned by the public (Section 5, Article 16, Colorado Constitution). Water rights are a private, usufructuary property right, a right held as dearly as any private property right.

The same holds true in some similar fashion in the other Colorado River basin states. Federalizing control of the river and all water rights would be pretty near impossible, if not a spark for serious unrest. It would create a massive, disruptive undertaking of proper adjudication and reapportionment. The “takings” would be both expensive and painful. The only ones who would benefit from the endless litigation will be the lawyers and politicians. It would make things worse, not better.

Draining Lake Powell is also a can of worms. As nice as it sounds, it is a subject of intense wrangling. Once the lake hits “dead pool” no water can be released at all. Not one drop. Draining the lake to let the river flow freely downstream will require boring new tunnels around the dam. An expensive, but possible engineering idea.

Lake Powell is as much a recreation powerhouse as Lake Mead.

The hydropower generated at the Glen Canyon Dam is not insignificant, and perhaps more important than the power generated by Hoover Dam. Glen Canyon is one of the largest power sources for a far larger area of the inter-mountain west through the Western Area Power Administration. The revenue from that power generation funds the endangered species recovery programs of the upper Colorado Basin. Electricity from Glen Canyon helps run the pumps in Nebraska and Kansas that are feverishly depleting the Ogalala Aquifer.

The Colorado River Compact was drafted at a time when the basin states had close to parity in Congress. They also had much smaller populations and agricultural demands. Now, 100 years later, the situation is vastly different. The Compact itself is only three pages long, with a fourth for signatures. It is still a formal “treaty” between the States and Federal Governments. It is the foundation of the “Law of the River.” Yes, it was based on flawed and optimistic data and it left much undefined, such as water for tribes and Mexico. Evaporation wasn’t considered at all because there were no large reservoirs in 1922. Reopening the Compact would be more than a Herculean task.

The challenges we face today are far greater than those faced by the states in 1922 and there are no simple engineering solutions. There is far less water in the system than the Compact envisioned (they planned to re-group in 50 years to divided up the remaining surplus water…). There is also less water than subsequent agreements expected, including the 2007 Interim Guidelines. That agreement is being renegotiated for 2026 into a “final” set of guidelines. This time though, and at long last, the many basin Tribes are at the table. They hold perhaps the most senior water rights of all, rights that have never been included.

Climate change and increasing aridification are now the bottom-line reality. The concept of “stationarity,” the idea that there are historic observed extremes and all future projections can reliably fall within that range of extremes, was long a guiding principle in climate science. Not anymore. Stationarity is dead. The past is no longer a reliable guide for future planning.

We face some very serious challenges, not just in the water flow of the river, but in how we think about it. This reality seriously impacts traditional economics and long historical precedent. It is a tough pill to swallow. Solutions will not come easy, without shared pain and reduced use. How well we, all of us in the Southwest, handle these new realities will define how we face the future of the Colorado River Basin.

Ken Neubecker of Glenwood Springs worked for American Rivers for nearly 10 years. Now semi-retired, he is self-employed through his own firm, Western Rivers LLC, and is also an avid photographer and writer addressing western water and river issues.

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