Guest opinion: Federal government’s role in Colorado River water matters became more involved over time |

Guest opinion: Federal government’s role in Colorado River water matters became more involved over time

Ken Neubecker

Back in February, I wrote a column in an attempt to explain how water rights and allocations work in the West and in Colorado. It was a response to some rather simplistic solutions to the current Colorado River crisis that have been offered up lately.

While state laws provide the foundation for water rights, use and allocation, I was perhaps a bit too casual about the role that the federal government plays, especially the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Interior.

The federal government plays an enormous role in water use within the Colorado River Basin, primarily in the Lower Basin with Arizona, Nevada and California. Perhaps their greatest role historically is in providing both funding and expertise to all the states, including Colorado.

Most Western states had codified water law by the end of the early 20th century. Colorado put the concept of both public ownership of water and the concept of Prior Appropriation — first in time, first in right — into its constitution.

In the beginning, water users built and paid for things, like irrigation ditches themselves. Often, they would band together, as with the Union Colony in Northeast Colorado, or subscribe with private development companies that too often failed and were taken over by the subscribing irrigators (The Grand Valley ditch in Grand Junction is a prime example).

But as time went on, these communal efforts found that they could not afford the larger and more extensive projects required to meet the needs of expanding agriculture. They turned at first to the states for help. Most states also found that such work was beyond their financial abilities. The result was turning to the deeper pockets of the federal government and the creation in 1902 of the Reclamation Service. One of the first projects built by the new agency in Colorado was the diversion and tunnel bringing water from the Gunnison River to the Uncomphagre Valley south of Grand Junction. It was a big deal. President Taft was on-hand in Delta to ceremonially open the gates and bring a flood of new water to the farms and fields.

An earlier, large-scale private irrigation project was built in Southern California to bring water from the Colorado River for the newly-developing farms of the Imperial Valley through the Alamo Canal. In 1905, the flood water of the Colorado decided it liked the Alamo Canal more than its natural course to the delta and appropriated it for its entire flow, creating the Salton Sea and ruining the original development company. Getting the river back into its natural course took 18 months.

The irrigators of the Colorado River’s lower reaches demanded a dam be built to control the floods. They also demanded a new “All American” canal that would avoid Mexico. And they looked to the federal government to build it and pay for it.

This alarmed the upstream states, especially Colorado. California was developing the river at a much faster pace and would be able to claim seniority under prior appropriation and deny slower developing states the water they may need in the future. Delph Carpenter from Colorado proposed a solution. The result, after much wrangling, was the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act authorized the construction and funding of both Hoover Dam and the All American Canal. And it gave the federal government a seat at the table they had never had before.

Almost before the ink was dry on the Compact, the fighting between Arizona and California began. Arizona pulled out of the Compact immediately and started a string of lawsuits against its neighbor. Arizona initially lost. The upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — seemed to get along just fine and drafted their own Upper Basin Compact in 1948, clearing the way for projects like Glen Canyon (originally planned for Dinosaur, N.M., but that’s another story), Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and a slew of others.

Arizona wanted to tap into the federal funding pie as well, especially for the Central Arizona project. So they finally signed on to the 1922 Compact and once again sued California. This lawsuit took nearly 10 years, but, in 1963, Arizona finally won. Sort of.

My next column will take a look at that 1963 Supreme Court decision and its implications for subsequent agreements and the current challenges facing the Basin States, Mexico and the increasingly important role of the federal government.

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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