An explanation of Colorado’s administration of the Rio Grande River Compact from Steve Vandiver

Here’s a guest column running in the Taos News written by Steve Vandiver, the general manager of the Río Grande Water Conservation District, that is in response to this letter published on May 6. Vandiver explains the origins and administration of the compact. Click through and read both letters. Here’s an excerpt from Vandiver’s letter:

The Río Grande Compact is a document that was approved by the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas in 1938 and then ratified by the Congress of the United States. Among other things, the compact sought to recognize and protect the then-existing uses of the waters of the Río Grande in each of the three states and to divide the waters of the Río Grande among the three states according to that use.

Colorado’s apportionment or right to those waters, is set forth in Article III of the compact, which protects the water uses which were occurring in Colorado at that time, but also significantly limited any future development. The apportionment in the compact is to the state of Colorado for the benefit its citizens, just as the compact apportionment of the Río Grande is to the state of New Mexico for the benefit of New Mexico’s citizens.

As a matter of comity, in the 1938 compact, the state of Colorado recognized existing plans of the United States government and the state of New Mexico to construct diversion works and tunnels to deliver water from the San Juan River into the Río Grande drainage for the sole benefit of citizens of New Mexico downstream from Española.

Colorado’s acknowledgment of New Mexico’s plans for those diversion works on tributaries of the Colorado River was included in the Río Grande Compact in order to allow New Mexico to fully realize its benefits from the Colorado River Compact that had been signed in 1922. It had nothing to do with existing uses that were occurring within Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

The Río Grande Compact, far from permitting the “dewatering of the mainstem of the Río Grande through Taos County” actually requires the State of Colorado to deliver water through that very reach of the river and limits the ability of Colorado’s water users, including farmers in the San Luis Valley, from consuming more water from the Río Grande than was used during the period prior to 1938.

The economy that serves the writer’s interest, based upon river rafting, did not exist at the time of the compact and only came into being 100 years after Coloradans were making use of the Río Grande for the purposes to which it is put to this day.
Colorado’s right to the waters of the Río Grande is no different than the rights claimed by irrigationists in New Mexico taking water through acequias which also reduce the flows in the river. Both states have historic uses that are entitled to respect and protection.

Each state is entitled to the beneficial use of its share of the Río Grande in the manner that it may so choose. Taos County and its rafting industry has no right to suggest that uses within the state of Colorado are less valuable, nor less entitled to protection, than uses within Taos County. New Mexicans are fully entitled to make whatever economic decisions they wish about the water to which they are legally entitled under the Río Grande Compact but they are not entitled to make decisions about the water to which Colorado is entitled.

Finally, the writer does not acknowledge the severe drought that the San Luis Valley and Northern New Mexico are currently experiencing. The May 1 NRCS forecast for 2013 for the Upper Río Grande in Colorado is only 44 percent of normal. That equates to flows that are the fourth lowest since the period of record started in 1890.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here and here.

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