Whiting column: Colorado River Compact adjustments are needed

Bryan Whiting
Personal Responsibility

Legislation may need to be adjusted to maintain its validity.

The passage of time, a change in need, the wisdom of hindsight, practicality and fairness can all create the necessity for adjusting legislation if it is to continue to be effective and accomplish its intended purpose.

The Colorado River Compact is a prime example. When signed in 1922, the Colorado River drainage was divided into two divisions; Upper: Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah; Lower: Arizona, California, Nevada. At that time, it was felt the total average annual flow was 16.4 million acre feet. As a result, each basin was assigned 50%, or 7.5 million acre feet, with the 1.4 million acre feet surplus allocated to Mexico.

As a result, the Upper Basin is obligated to provide 7.5M acre feet to the Lower Basin, regardless of the actual flow of water in any given year. Obviously, snowpack and the consequent flow is not a constant and years of drought and low flows create a problem for the Upper Basin. Any year generating less than 15M acre feet means that the Upper Basin may be required to make do with less than their 7.5M share to guarantee the Lower Basin’s 7.5M.

This has become an annual, not an occasional problem. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the average annual flow from 2000-2018 was 12.4M, compared to the expected 16.4M. This means the Upper Basin may have to make do with 4.9M if the Lower Basin is to receive their 7.5M. Lake Mead and Lake Powell were created as an effort to mitigate the effect of low water years and help provide the Lower Basin 7.5M without having to reduce the Upper Basin, but over 18 years of lower flows have reduced their levels to 50% of capacity requiring the Upper Basin to reduce their usage.

There is a provision for Lower Basin reduction to 7M acre feet in a year of extreme drought, but according to the Bureau of Reclamation that reduction has yet to be implemented. Going to 7M would still necessitate an Upper Basin reduction to 5.4M during the average 12.4M year.

This Upper Basin drought period doesn’t seem to be ending, but rather accelerating. Consequently, future years will require actual restriction in usage in the Upper Basin to fulfill their mandated Lower Basin guarantee of 7.5M.

The cause is irrelevant, because any solution is long term, and the effect is now. An immediate change in weather pattern will take many years to eliminate the problem. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates it would take 13-15 years of 20% increase in flows to refill the two reservoirs. Probably not a good bet.

Reducing usage by an average of 2.5M acre feet will require reduced river flows negatively affecting fish and wildlife. 33% less water would be available for agriculture, manufacturing, and domestic use. Beyond inconvenience, the economic effects would be obvious and devastating.

Beyond our current emphasis on equity, it is hardly fair for the Upper Basin to have to bear the entire hardship, especially given we are the source of the water. Even in times of scarcity, farmers aren’t asked to take food off their personal table. There is a logical solution available.

Given that the original premise was a 50% division, why not maintain that percent but base it on actual water availability. If 12.4M acre feet are generated this year, for example, then 6.2M is available for each Basin. Hardship isn’t eliminated but at least shared equally. If a great water year, over the 15M, happens to occur, the 7.5M share is maintained so the surplus would help refill the two reservoirs. A simple and fair solution.

Sadly, simple and fair hasn’t usually been a common motivator for legislative or regulatory change. This solution would not sit well with politicians from the Lower Basin. They would try to wield the hatchet based on their having a population almost five times that of the Upper Basin (51M to 11M).

It is hard to defeat 500% more potential voters, but we must try.

It’s a solution that would be easy to determine as well as implement. An allocation based on reality would not only be more workable but more realistic, equitable with shared hardship or surplus.

There are meetings scheduled this summer to further discuss Colorado River Compact adjustments necessitated by drought. The time is right to make this logical change.

Water issues are here and not going away. It is our personal responsibility to advocate for an equitable way to work the problem until solutions to the drought have time to take effect.

Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of non-partisan economics rather than government intervention. Comments and column suggestions to:

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