Here’s a historical look at the Colorado River Compact and Delph Carpenter’s influence from Eric Kuhn that’s running on InkStain. Click through and read the whole post for Eric’s insights. Here’s an excerpt:
The 1922 compact as it was signed in November 1922 was not the compact Carpenter wanted when the negotiations began in the previous January. He was a fierce advocate for state sovereignty over all the waters that originate or flow through a state, but Carpenter knew he might be on the wrong side of the United States Supreme Court on the matter…
In the early 1900s, A Colorado developer proposed a project that would divert water from the Laramie River Basin into the adjacent South Platte River Basin. In 1911, Wyoming went to the U. S. Supreme Court to protect water rights that had already been perfected in the Wheatland area. As the Colorado River negotiations began, the case had been through two oral arguments, but had not yet been formally decided. Carpenter feared that since both Colorado and Wyoming were prior appropriation states, the court would apply the doctrine to the Laramie on an interstate basis, undermining his cherished state sovereignty and, on the Colorado River, giving the advantage to faster growing lower river states.
The Laramie case loomed as representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states came together to negotiate what would become the Colorado River Compact.
After joining Utah commissioner R. E. Caldwell during the sixth Compact Commission meeting to block a proposal to apportion water to individual states based on the amount of irrigable acreage within each state, during the seventh meeting, Carpenter made his move. Carpenter’s proposal was relatively simple. He suggested that the lower river states should allow the upper river states to develop and use water within the basin unimpeded by the states of the lower river –“the construction of any and all reservoirs or other works upon the lower river shall in no manner arrest or interfere with the subsequent development …of the upper states or the use of water therein….”
In return, Carpenter said, the upper river states would do the same- “give you absolute free unbridled rights, all objections withdrawn…” The upper river states would not litigate or oppose in Congress, any development in the lower river. Carpenter made the case that due to the canyon and mountainous topography, climate (limited growing season), and because of return flows, water use within the upper part of the basin would have little impact on the supply of water to the lower river- “the areas which may be irrigated and the consumption …. so limited by nature, that the states of origin will never be able to beneficially use even an equitable portion of the waters …. of each.” When pressed by Commission Chairman Herbert Hoover, Carpenter acknowledged that because exports out of the basin were fully consumptive the upper river would agree to limit the amount water moved across the continental divide. In Silver Fox of the Rockies, historian Daniel Tyler suggests that Carpenter and his fellow upper river commissioners would have accepted a limit of 500,000 – 600,000 acre-feet per year, about 25% less than the current exports.
Commissioners from the lower river rejected Carpenter’s proposal countering that without an overall limit on upper river use, they would not have the certainty necessary to finance their proposed projects. In June 1922, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Wyoming and applied the concept of prior appropriation to the Laramie River as a whole, confirming Carpenter’s fears. The decision forced him to change tactics. When the commissioners reconvened in Santa Fe in November 1922, building on a proposal by the Reclamation Service’s Arthur Powell Davis (now Bureau of Reclamation) to create a compact among the two basins, Carpenter made a new proposal which became the framework for the compact that was ultimately approved. Carpenter proposed the basins be divided at Lee Ferry (a mile downstream of Lee’s Ferry), the Upper Basin would, in Carpenter’s words, “guarantee” a 10 year-flow at Lee Ferry (the negotiated number ended up at 75 million acre-feet), and each basin would share any future treaty obligation to Mexico…
In theory, new export projects out of the Upper Basin to meet the needs of the booming Colorado Front Range and Wasatch Front could be a driver for new consumptive uses, but reality suggest otherwise. There are currently only three export projects in the planning or permitting process; Denver Water’s Moffat System Expansion project, Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming project, and the State of Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline. The net additional consumptive of the first two projects is small, no more than about 20,000 acre-feet per year. The Lake Powell Pipeline will divert about 80,000 acre-feet per year to the St. George area, but it may not really be an export project. The water it diverts will be used in the Lower Basin. Like overall Upper Basin consumptive uses, since 1988 the trend for exports has been flat or slightly declining…
The current situation on the river raises the basic question of equity between the two basins that Carpenter recognized a century ago. The Lower Basin is using more than its 8.5 million acre-feet apportionment under the 1922 compact. The Upper Basin is using far less than its 7.5 million acre-feet, about 4.3 million acre-feet per year. Yet, with fixed obligations to the Lower Basin and Mexico under the 1922 compact, the Upper Basin still bears the brunt of the climate change risk.
Eric and his co-author, John Fleck, have written a new book Science be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River. Most Colorado River watchers have the book on their wish list. Click here to pre-order. Publication is slated for later this summer. Here’s a blurb from the Tattered Cover Bookstore website:
Science Be Dammed is an alarming reminder of the high stakes in the management—and perils in the mismanagement—of water in the western United States. It seems deceptively simple: even when clear evidence was available that the Colorado River could not sustain ambitious dreaming and planning by decision-makers throughout the twentieth century, river planners and political operatives irresponsibly made the least sustainable and most dangerous long-term decisions.
Arguing that the science of the early twentieth century can shed new light on the mistakes at the heart of the over-allocation of the Colorado River, authors Eric Kuhn and John Fleck delve into rarely reported early studies, showing that scientists warned as early as the 1920s that there was not enough water for the farms and cities boosters wanted to build. Contrary to a common myth that the authors of the Colorado River Compact did the best they could with limited information, Kuhn and Fleck show that development boosters selectively chose the information needed to support their dreams, ignoring inconvenient science that suggested a more cautious approach.
Today water managers are struggling to come to terms with the mistakes of the past. Focused on both science and policy, Kuhn and Fleck unravel the tangled web that has constructed the current crisis. With key decisions being made now, including negotiations for rules governing how the Colorado River water will be used after 2026, Science Be Dammed offers a clear-eyed path forward by looking back.
Understanding how mistakes were made is crucial to understanding our contemporary problems. Science Be Dammed offers important lessons in the age of climate change about the necessity of seeking out the best science to support the decisions we make.
About the Author
Eric Kuhn [@R_EricKuhn] , recently retired, worked for the Colorado River Water Conservation District from 1981 to 2018, including twenty-two years as general manager. The district is a water utility and policy agency covering most of the Colorado River basin within Colorado.
John Fleck [@jfleck] is director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. A Colorado River expect, he wrote Water Is for Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West.
“Highly significant for understanding the present water supply issues of the southwestern United States.”—Victor Baker, Hydrology and Water Resources, University of Arizona