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What Seven States Can Agree to Do: Deal-Making on the Colorado River

The Central Arizona Project carries Colorado River water to Phoenix. (Photo: John Fleck)

By John Fleck

As western water leaders converged on Las Vegas in  December 2001, Southern California’s inability to contain its voracious appetite seemed finally to be bumping up against reality - there is only so much water in the Colorado River.

Shared among seven states and Mexico via a shifting, uncertain set of bargains, the river was running up against the era of limits.

For years, California had been living large off the surplus of others. It slurped Colorado River leftovers other states weren’t using, pumping it 250 miles to rapidly growing coastal cities. But as the rest of the southwest grew and began taking its rightful share of the Colorado, California faced an urgent deadline. It had to come up with a plan to cut its use or see a large share of its water supply simply cut off on Jan. 1, 2003.

Testifying at a Dec. 10 House field hearing, Larry Anderson, head of Utah’s Division of Water Resources, was blunt. If California did not tame its appetites, the other states dependent on the Colorado River expected the federal government to step in and enforce the “Law of the River”, the maze of laws that govern distribution of the river’s water. “Appropriate enforcement is critical to protecting our rights,” Anderson said. 1

In response, Southern California Congresswoman Grace Napolitano's question to the federal government’s top water official sounded more like a plea. If California is making a good faith effort, she asked, could the Golden State have more time? Coming from a representative of the region’s largest state and economic powerhouse, the plea also contained a hint of a threat: “California cannot afford the immediate reduction by that amount of water,” she said. “Our economy reaches out to the neighboring states so that if we suffer, so do the rest of the states around us.”

Sitting at the witness table, Interior Department’s assistant secretary Bennett Raley responded with what, in the coded language of western water law, amounted to an ultimatum. His boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, was ready to cut California’s share. If the state missed the deadline, “the Secretary will have to use all means at her disposal to ensure that she is in compliance with the Law of the River.” 2


Carving a course

The Colorado River carves a defining course through North American geography and history. Winter snow falling in the Rockies, mostly in Colorado and Wyoming, feeds it. The Colorado and its longest tributary, the Green, spend much of their lives in the deep, arid canyon country of the arid interior western United States.

The river and its tributaries pass through seven U.S. states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – before making a short run between the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California to the Gulf of California. (Read more)

As the United States expanded westward in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Colorado tended to be more hindrance than help to the young nation’s immigrant settlers. The water was a long way from the best lands. The good land that did lie along its banks was at risk of flooding from its highly variable flow, but because runoff came early in the year, farm fields were dry by late summer.  The land’s native inhabitants long understood this, but the lessons came hard to the newcomers.

In the early 20th century, engineering seemed to offer the answer. Dams would control floods and save water during high flow times for use when things were dry. Canals and pumping systems would move the water out of the Colorado’s river valleys where it was needed. “Canals move water in space,” the old hydraulic engineer’s saw explains. “Dams move water in time.” But before the engineers could go to work, the politicians would have to decide how to divide up the river.


Drinkin’ and fightin’

For all the times it has been attributed to him, Mark Twain seems never to have said “Whiskey’s for drinkin’. Water’s for fightin’ over.” 3

The quote lives on in descriptions of water politics in the arid Southwest, invariably with Twain’s name attached, because of the power of the idea behind it: that the allocation of scarce water is an enduring source of conflict.

But the history of Colorado River management is a more complex story. It is easy to focus on the fighting, and the battles make for some great yarns. But there also is a remarkable history of not fighting - of negotiated agreements - that suggests there is more than one path for dealing with the West’s water problems. Westerners have done their share of fighting, but they also have a remarkable record of cooperation. “History has shown that collaboration is a necessary ingredient for action in the Colorado River basin,” Jennifer Gimbel of the Colorado River Water Conservation Board told members of Congress in a 2010 hearing 4 .

Deals don’t end the problems faced by those who depend on the increasingly scarce water of the Colorado. But they do provide the constraints to water users in the seven states that share the river - boundaries to their available water supply that force them to choose among farms and swimming pools and lawns.

Economist Herbert Stein once famously wrote what has come to be known as Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” 5 In water, simply put, it means when there is no more, the use to which it was being put must end.

We have seen Stein’s Law in action among Colorado Basin water users:

  • Albuquerque’s decision to begin weaning itself from groundwater when it realized its supplies were running low
  • Tucson 6 and Las Vegas 7 driving down their consumption as they realized they were bumping up against water supply limits
  • The collaboration of farmers on the Arkansas River in Colorado to temporarily fallow land and lease water to thirsty Front Range cities. 8

Some of these cases involve more foresight than others, and much environmental damage has been left by decisions to put human use of water above the rivers themselves. Figuring out how to leave water in rivers for recreation and for the environment remains a hard problem for the people who make decisions about water in the Colorado River Basin. Too often, those interests do not get a seat at the table as decisions are being worked out.

But every case where water use has been reduced began with a realization that Stein’s Law looms somewhere in the visible distance. The question in Las Vegas in December 2001 was whether California would get a pass, or would be made to confront Stein’s law.


Calling out the National Guard

The closest we have come to a real shooting war over the Colorado River sounds more like comedy than violence.

There was genuine outrage when Arizona Gov. Benjamin B. Moeur dispatched the Arizona National Guard in 1935 to try to block the construction of Parker Dam.

Since the early days of U.S. attempts to divide the Colorado, Arizona harbored a grudge, feeling it had been cheated out of water. The grudge came to a head when Moeur declared martial law on a stretch of the Colorado River’s eastern bank where the Bureau of Reclamation intended to anchor Parker Dam. Parker was to be the jumping off point for the Colorado River Aqueduct, which would send Colorado River water to Los Angeles. Arizonans felt entitled to the water, but had no way to use it yet. To see it sent to California was more than they could bear.

The armaments triggered a war of legal briefs rather than bullets. The federal government went to court asking for an injunction to force Arizona to allow construction. When that failed, California’s powerful Congressional delegation pushed through legislation allowing the dam’s construction, and the National Guard withdrew. 9

The 1935 “War on the Colorado” was the most visible manifestation of a longstanding tension among the states of the Colorado River. The states needed to cooperate to ensure the development of the river. But at the same time each state was looking out for its own self-interest, trying to ensure the biggest possible share of the river for itself.

Rapidly developing California encapsulated the dilemma posed by the river. Its water, judiciously spread across the land, had the potential to turn the Imperial Valley into an agricultural giant. But the river also devastated the valley when it flooded.

An upstream dam would solve that problem, and allow the storage of water for California’s farmlands and rapidly growing cities. A failed history of private sector development made clear that only the federal government had the resources to pull it off. But the federal government would not embark on the project until the other six states Colorado Basin states joined California in an agreement about who was entitled to how much of the river’s water.

Under U.S. law, each state governed water use within its own boundaries, but federal law was fuzzy about what happened when water crossed states lines.

Given the uncertainty, the other states of the Colorado River Basin feared California, and with good reason. 10 Within the western states, development had generally happened under the “doctrine of prior appropriation”. It gave water rights to the first people who put it to beneficial use. Latecomers would get water only after the earlier first users had taken their share. As farms sprung up along the arid West’s rivers, the doctrine made sense. It prevented a new farmer upstream from taking all the water from a river and leaving an established farmer downstream dry.

In the early 20th century, the question was whether the same rules would apply as rivers flowed across state boundaries. Could established water use in a downstream state trump new uses in an upstream state?

It was clear California would be first to develop its share of Colorado River water. If the doctrine also applied to water flowing across state boundaries - and the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling handed down in June 1922 in a suit between Wyoming and Colorado over use the Laramie River suggested it might 11 - then California could end up with rights to most of the Colorado River’s water, with little left for the other six states that shared the big river.

They needed a framework that would give California what it wanted - dams, and soon - while preserving the future water rights of states upstream that would not be able to use the water for years to come.

A clever Colorado lawyer named Delph Carpenter is generally credited as the mastermind behind the deal that became the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Deciding how much water each state would get seemed like an insurmountable problem in the negotiations among the seven states, so Carpenter proposed a shortcut. The states in what has come to be known as the “Upper Basin” - Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico - would get half the river’s water. The remaining “Lower Basin” states - California, Arizona and Nevada - would get the other half. The states in each basin would then decide among themselves how to share the bounty. Even though the Upper Basin states had far smaller populations, and were developing much more slowly, this approach meant their full share would be there when they finally needed it. Growing California could not trump their rights. 12

The negotiators wrote some fudge factors into the deal that have bedeviled efforts to manage the river since. There was ambiguous language about Arizona’s share that led to lengthy litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court, and a “we’ll figure this out later” approach to dealing with Mexico’s share of a river that terminates south of the U.S. Mexico border. 13

The Compact cleared the way for a century of dam building that created Lake Mead (behind Hoover Dam on the Lower Colorado) and Lake Powell (behind Glen Canyon Dam on the Upper Colorado) and a host of smaller water storage and diversion projects.

Ironically, there were early fears that Mexico might claim too much of the river’s water. 14 But the opposite happened, in what has become one of the great tragedies of Colorado River management. A 1944 treaty settled Mexico’s share at less than one tenth of the Colorado River’s water. With Mexico’s share consumed by farms and cities, the once ecologically rich Colorado River Delta rarely sees water any more. 15


Arizona v. California

The Compact deal showed the seven states could make a deal in principle, but what followed showed that no deal on the Colorado River would ever be easy in practice.

After signing on to the Compact in 1922, Arizona backed away, refusing to ratify the deal and eventually dispatching its troops to prove a point.

Arizona’s 1935 “war” over the construction of Parker Dam was one episode in its long struggle, and its legal battles over the Colorado River Compact didn’t end for another 70 years. In 1952 it sued California over its share of the Colorado. 16 The suit dragged on in one form or another for more than five decades, with the final decree settling the issues raised not filed until 2006.

In the process, Arizona won some of legal arguments, but it also lost much. By fighting in court rather than cutting deals, it ended up nearly last in line for allocation of the Colorado’s water. The Central Arizona Project, Arizona’s piece of the federally subsidized engineering used move the Colorado’s water, was not completed until 1994. 17


The age of deal-making

The 2001 showdown in Vegas between California congresswoman Grace Napolitano and the Interior Department’s Bennett Raley had its roots in Arizona v. California.

The Law of the River said California could use surplus Colorado River water if any was to be had. For decades, California had become accustomed to living off of that surplus. But with the settlement of Arizona v. California, the days of surplus were numbered. The deal cleared the way for the construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Its canals stretched 336 miles from Lake Havasu (ironically, the reservoir Moen’s guardsmen tried to block) uphill to Phoenix and Tucson.

On paper, Arizona’s share of water from the main stem of the Colorado all along had amounted to 2.8 million acre feet of water per year. But until the completion of the CAP, it had no way to use it.

In the 1980s, Arizona’s use only topped 2 million acre feet once. In the 1990s, that went up to seven of ten years. Since then, thanks to the CAP, it has been taking close to its full allotment every year. 18

California had been living off of Arizona’s extra water since the beginning. But with the completion of CAP, it became clear to everyone that California needed to reduce its consumption from the  5 million-plus annual acre feet it had been taking to the 4.4 million acre feet allotted by the Law of the River. The Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. California made that clear, Interior Secretary Gale Norton told members of the Association of California Water Agencies in November 2002. 19

“I am enjoined by the Supreme Court Decree from delivering water to California beyond its 4.4 million acre-feet allocation unless surplus water is available or there is unused water from Arizona or Nevada. Until recently, the lack of demand in other states allowed California to obtain significant amounts of Colorado River water. This scenario is changing today,” Norton said.

Boulder Harbor on Lake Mead in October 2010, left dry by the dropping reservoir. (Photo: John Fleck)

Negotiations began in the 1990s during the wettest period in nearly a century of record keeping. Storage in Mead and Powell at the end of the 1999 water years was the highest it had ever been. 20 It seemed like a comfortable cushion.

The resulting “Interim Surplus Guidelines” weren’t meant to be a drought plan. They were meant to give California a “soft landing”, an orderly process of taking advantage of surpluses on the river as it slowly reduced its use over 15 years. The Metropolitan Water District, California’s giant municipal water agency that serves Los Angeles, San Diego and a host of smaller communities, estimated it had a 90 percent chance of surpluses in Lake Mead out through 2015. 21

But even as the deal was being finalized, nature was pushing the river basin into the 10 percent side of Met’s equations. From 2000 to 2005, flow on the river was 64 percent of the long term average. The reservoirs were being drained, and the “Surplus Guidelines” turned into a drought plan. For the first time in the river’s history, a state was forced to cut its use.

The ax fell Jan. 1, 2003, with an edict from the Secretary of the Interior: California would get 4.4 million acre feet that year, and no more. 22

The Metropolitan Water District, Southern California’s primary water wholesaler, had been running its Colorado River Aqueduct full bore since it was built, moving 1.2 million acre feet of water per year. That number was cut to 500,000 acre feet, literally overnight. 23

Remarkably, the deal stuck. But the reservoirs kept dropping.


Shortage Sharing Agreement

The Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, where the river is divided between upper and lower basins (Photo: Lissa Heineman)

In 2005, the states of the Upper Basin were nervous. Lake Powell, their buffer against the Compact’s requirement that they deliver water every year past Lee’s Ferry for Lower Basin use, was running low after a devastating drought. In 2003 the National Park Service abandoned the marina at Hite, Utah, leaving nothing but a muddy river in its wake. 24 Powell kept dropping. By the spring of 2005, it had fallen 140 feet since the fat and happy surplus that had filled the reservoir in 1999.

In an April 18 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the Upper Basin states asked the federal government to slow down its releases of water from Lake Powell, holding some water back. Quirks of that year’s weather meant Lake Powell was dropping faster than Lake Mead. T Upper Basin states worried that continued drought could force them to cut back their water use to meet the requirement under the Colorado River Compact that they deliver water downstream for Arizona, Nevada and California.

As Norton’s staff considered the request, the snow was falling in the rockies. Between April and July, Lake Powell rose 50 feet, and Norton said “no” to the Upper Basin’s request to hold back water. 25 But she added an ultimatum. The troubles of 2005 suggested the need for a clear plan for what to do when the reservoirs dropped. She called on the states to come up with a “shortage sharing” plan, and set a deadline of 2007 to complete it.

Everyone on the river knew that the Upper Basin states, while not currently using their full share of Colorado River water, continued to grow. The Lower Basin, which had been living since the beginning off of surpluses left by the Upper Basin’s under-use of water, needed a plan to adjust. But who would take the hit?

In the negotiations, it was clear the concept of prior appropriation, codified in Arizona v. California, was an unmovable reality. California had been forced to drop its use to 4.4 million acre-feet, but for the foreseeable future, it would drop no more. It stood first in line for its remaining share. If there were any additional shortage, Arizona and Nevada would take the hit. But the details of how were the subject of intense argument among the state’s representatives.

Many was the night Terry Fulp, who helped steer the negotiations for the federal government, would go home thinking, “We’re never gonna make it.” 26

Hoover Dam during construction, circa 1935. (Photo: Courtesy US Bureau of Reclamation)

Finally, representatives of the seven basin states joined Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Norton’s replacement, for a signing ceremony in December 2007 in Las Vegas. The deal for the first time provides clarity for the states of the lower basin. If the surface elevation of Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level, Arizona and Nevada will have to begin curtailing their use of Colorado River water. 27

It hasn’t happened yet. At 9 p.m. on Nov. 27, 2010, the reservoir level reached 1,081.85 feet, less than seven feet from the shortage trigger. 28 But a remarkably wet winter of 2010-11, the wettest since the late 1990s, pushed Mead back up, and pushed the risk of shortage out years. The 2007 shortage sharing agreement has yet to be tested.


Climate change poses a harder problem

Article III (d) of the Colorado River Compact sounds simple on its face:

“The States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet 29 for any period of ten consecutive years reckoned in continuing progressive series beginning with the first day of October next succeeding the ratification of this compact.” 30

The paragraph’s core phrase - “will not cause … to be depleted” lies at the heart of the problems that come next.

The idea behind the provision was twofold. First, it provided specific legal language dividing the river’s water between the Upper and Lower Basins - Delph Carpenter’s idea of providing 7.5 million acre feet each for the Upper and Lower basins. It also takes variability into account. Because of the difference between wet years and dry years, the compact allowed the upper basin states to under-deliver in dry years as long as they over-delivered in wet years, spreading the accounting over 10 years.

But what if, through no fault of water users in the upper basin states, the flow in the river drops for a long period below the required 7.5 million acre feet delivery - or forever? The men who gathered in 1922 to frame the Law of the River never contemplated the possibility. “The hydrographers and experts advise me that a twenty-year record on a river is adequate in its completeness and includes enough years to warrant an assumption that the average there deduced would be the average flow of the river in the future,” Carpenter said. 31

In the early 1990s, scientists began warning that climate change caused by rising greenhouse gases would reduce flows for good in the Colorado River. 32 By the 2000s, the warnings were becoming more insistent. 33

How much the flow might drop is a question fraught with uncertainty. In its most recent attempt to assess the state of the science, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation put the number at 8 percent on average by 2050. 34 Any such attempt to nail down the number with precision is a fool’s errand. There uncertainties in the climate modeling effort. More importantly, the dominant variable in any such calculation - humanity’s future greenhouse gas emissions - is inherently unknowable.

But all the studies point to reduced flow. If there is less water in the Colorado River, who takes the hit? Eric Kuhn, head of the Colorado River Conservation District in western Colorado, in 2007 wrote a provocative white paper that has become required reading in the basin: “The Colorado River - The Story of a Quest for Certainty on a Diminishing River.”

Kuhn’s argues that there remains inherent uncertainty about III (d) and related provisions in the compact. In a severe, sustained drought, or a river sapped by climate change, must the states of the Upper Basin cut back their own usage of their share of the river so they can continue to deliver the full 7.5 million acre feet past Lee Ferry for lower basin use?

Kuhn thinks the answer is “yes”. “Unfortunately for the Upper Basin,” he wrote, “the answer appears to be that the Lee Ferry obligations trump the Upper Basin’s 7.5 maf/year.” 35

But Kuhn’s “appears to be” is key. No one really knows until one of two things happen. On the “fightin’ over” path, the U.S. Supreme Court could, if push comes to legal shove, settle the Compact’s ambiguity. Down that road lies enormous legal uncertainty. “That route takes the decision out of the water managers' hands,” said John Entsminger, a smart water lawyer who as senior deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority was one of the key architects of the 2007 shortage sharing agreement. “Are we going to let guys and gals in black robes start making these decisions for us, or are we going to come together and maybe not have a perfect solution from everybody's perspective, but a solution that works for everybody?” 36

Or, afraid of the downside risk of losing that battle, the seven basin states could work out a deal among themselves about how to share shortages on the Colorado River that climate change may make inevitable.

Therein lies the path suggested by the past success of the surplus guidelines and shortage sharing agreement.

The Law of the River was once seen as fixed and inviolable. “It was tantamount to having been written on tablets,” said Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. But the deals of the last decade suggest pliability, Mulroy argues.

 Mulroy’s central point is that deals to share the Colorado’s water, rather than fightin’, are possible: “Seven states can do what seven states can agree to do.” 37


So what can seven states agree to do?

A few miles west of the river town of Yuma, Arizona, the Colorado River makes a hard left turn, headed south toward Mexico and its abrupt end. What used to flow another hundred river miles or so to the Gulf of Mexico, big and unruly, now stops three miles to the south at Morelos Dam. There, Mexico’s share of the shrinking river is diverted to the rich farming region of Mexicali. Beyond Morelos Dam, the Colorado’s ghost wanders through dry scrub land where a river once flowed, kept company by the U.S. border patrol and a levee meant to protect the surrounding flood plain against an eventuality – flowing water – that seems almost comical today.

Standing on a bluff above the Colorado’s last bend, you can see the river’s past, along with some clues about what its future might hold. Below, along the river’s west bank, is an old abandoned diversion structure that once provided water to Imperial Valley farmers. Up the hill to the west is the All-American Canal, which does that job today – a far bigger artificial river carrying water west toward California’s lettuce farms while the natural river below heads toward its imminent demise.

The Yuma Desalting Plant being prepared for its test run, April 2010. (Photo: John Fleck)

Across the river, poking out of Yuma’s farm fields is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Desalting Plant. From May 2010 to March 2011, an experimental run at the plant processed 10 billion gallons of salty, mineralized Arizona agricultural drain water. Using that water to meet U.S. delivery obligations to Mexico, the theory goes, could free up water upstream for U.S. users. 38

The YDP’s history suggests the changes underway as the Colorado River’s managers grapple with life in the age of limits. Completed in the early 1990s to meet U.S. water delivery obligations to Mexico, the plant operated only briefly before being shut down by a flood. For much of the time since, it was unneeded, as high flows on the Colorado allowed the United States to meet its water delivery obligations without it. But that is now changing as the Colorado reaches its era of limits. 39

As Colorado River projects go, it is a small one, but it can tell us something about what might lie ahead.

First and foremost, it is an example of collaboration rather than warfare. The major urban water delivery agencies from Southern California, Arizona and Nevada chipped in together to share the cost of the project in return for the resulting water credits. They did it under the bureaucratic umbrella created by the 2007 shortage sharing agreement among the seven basin states, which allows the agencies to account for the “new” water they are creating by storing water upstream, in Lake Mead.

Using that accounting trick, it is as if dirty agricultural water flowing out of Arizona had been cleaned up and sent north to Las Vegas, or west to Los Angeles. Such water transfers across traditional boundaries – from state to state, or US to Mexico – are likely to play a crucial role in future deal-making on the Colorado. Such transfers do not come without an environmental price. The salty, seemingly useless agricultural drain water being cleaned up would otherwise have flowed to the Cienega de Santa Clara, an accidental wetland formed in what once was the Colorado Delta. But here too, we see signs of the future in U.S.-Mexico agreements among the water agencies and non-governmental organization to try to find alternative sources of water to keep the Cienega alive. 40

Twenty miles to the west of the YDP is another example of water users’ willingness to scrap for bits of extra water. The $172 million Warren H. Brock Reservoir was built to capture, in the words of Arizona Republic water writer Shaun McKinnon, “the dribbles lost downstream to Mexico when farmers in Arizona and California don't take water they ordered, usually because rain filled the need.” 41 The Southern Nevada Water Authority – Las Vegas – is footing most of the bill, with help from the Central Arizona Water Conservation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, in return for rights to the water saved. 42 “Lost downstream” is a value-laden way of describing it. Environmentalists point out that the water being “saved” was in fact some of the last to reach what was once the lush Colorado River Delta. 43

The Yuma Desalting Plant experiment and the Brock Reservoir and other similar projects real and imagined are baby steps toward what many see as a key to future Colorado River water management, as boundaries are broken to allow water to be moved across them. A spring 2011 study by the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy found support for the idea among river managers: “Some argued in favor of cross-boundary water exchanges, including interstate water banks. Several suggested economic arrangements in which water users and states pay others to forgo water use and allow water to flow to more economically valuable uses.” The Montana study acknowledges the impediments; chiefly a belief by some that such cross-border movement of water might not be politically or legally viable. 44 But it is clearly the direction the basin conversation is headed.

In the spring of 2011, Mulroy made an odd appearance in Albuquerque, New Mexico. New Mexico is an upper basin state. Nevada is a lower basin state. Moving water creatively from one basin to the other, beyond the legally mandated 7.5 million acre feet delivery required each year by the compact, has proven the most difficult nut for water managers to crack. The upper basin has a longstanding suspicion that Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are out to get their water.

Yet here was Mulroy, emblem of Las Vegas and all its voracious excess, speaking before a group of upper basin water conservation advocates, trying to explain how we all need to figure out how to share the Colorado.

Mulroy, a forceful leader in the search for long-term solutions on the river, is not acting out of altruism. Her job is to provide water to what was, until the real estate crash of the late ‘00s, the fastest growing major metro area in the Basin. But Nevada’s Colorado River allocation is the Basin’s smallest, and is junior to California’s. As problems set in, Las Vegas has the most to lose, which means Mulroy has the most to gain from creative solutions of a certain sort.

Part of Mulroy’s proposed solution to her own problems, a proposed groundwater pipeline from rural northeast Nevada to met Las Vegas water needs, has made her a lightning rod for opposition to large-scale engineering solutions to the West’s water problems. 45 But she also has adopted for herself the role of roving ambassador, pushing for collective water management solutions.

“The upper basin, where you sit, is very nervous,” Mulroy told the Albuquerque audience. “The lower basin has a little ace card. If the upper basin cannot make its compact deliveries to the lower basin, the lower basin can enact a ‘call’. That means the upper basin has to cut off all its uses until it has delivered to the lower basin the amount that it committed to in 1922. That is a very scary proposition. It affects Albuquerque, it affects Denver, it affects Salt Lake City, it affects innumerable Indian tribes, it affects any number of agricultural areas. It is something that is to be avoided at all costs.”

Mulroy’s version of what she wants seven states to agree to do is not to fight when the shortage happens, but rather to create a framework to share it: “If I have a shortage the easiest way to manage through a shortage is for everyone to share that burden. The larger the base I can spread that shortage over, everyone's relative share of that shortage is manageable. But if I take my shortage and offload it on my neighbor and live under the delusion that I can keep on going as if there wasn't a drought, the burden to my neighbor becomes unbearable.”




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Tsai, Catherine. “Water lease test aims to end ‘buy and dry’ trend - Houston Chronicle.” Associated Press, September 25, 2011.

United States. Implementation of the California plan for the Colorado River : oversight field hearing before the Subcommittee on Water and Power of the Committee on Resources, U.S. House of Representatives, One. Washington: U.S. G.P.O.  ;For sale by the Supt. of Docs.  U.S. G.P.O. Congressional Sales Office, 2002.

US Bureau of Reclamation. “Drop 2 Reservoir - FAQs”, February 2009.

Final Environmental Impact Assessment, Yuma Desalting Plant, August 2009.

Proposed Annual Operating Plan For Colorado River Reservoirs, 2012. US Bureau of Reclamation, October 14, 2011.

River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, Interim Report No. 1, 2011.

Verburg, Katherine Ott, United States, United States, and United States. The Colorado River Documents, 2008. Denver, Colo.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, 2010.

Wyoming v. Colorado, 259 US 419 (Supreme Court 1922).



1 United States, Implementation of the California plan for the Colorado River.

2 Ibid.

3 Breitler, Alex, “Whiskey is for drinking, and… well, you know.”

4 Gimbel, Written Statement of Jennifer Gimbel, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, before the Subcommittee on Natural Resources, US House of Representatives.

5 Coyle, The Economics of Enough, 104.

6 Fleck, “Water-Wise Tucson Recycles, Conserves.”

7 Barnett, Blue Revolution, 145.

8 Tsai, “Water lease test aims to end ‘buy and dry’ trend - Houston Chronicle.”

9 Hundley, Water and the West, 294.

10 Ibid., 181.

11 Wyoming v. Colorado.

12 Olson, The Colorado River Compact, 26–35.

13 Ibid., 179.

14 Ibid., 337.

15 Bergman, Red delta.

16 Arizona v. California.

17 Kenney et al., “Rethinking Vulnerability on the Colorado River.”

18 Verburg et al., The Colorado River Documents, 2008, 2–16.

19 Norton, “Remarks at Association of California Water Agencies.”

20 “Bureau of Reclamation: Upper Colorado Region Historic Data.”

21 Kightlinger, “author interview.”

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Fleck, “Abandoned Marina a Sign of Major Drought.”

25 “Bureau of Reclamation: Upper Colorado Region Historic Data.”

26 Fulp, “author interview.”

27 Verburg et al., The Colorado River Documents, 2008, A–385.

28 “Bureau of Reclamation: Lower Colorado Region - Lower Colorado River Operations.”

29 The acre foot is the arcane unit used to measure large volumes of water in the western United States. As the name implies, it is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. It is enough to serve two to three typical households in the region for a year. A typical irrigated farm uses three or more acre feet of water per acre per year.

30 Colorado River Commission, “Colorado River Compact.”

31 Colorado River Commission., Minutes and record ... of the Colorado River Commission negotiating the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

32 Nash and Gleick, “Sensitivity of streamflow in the Colorado Basin to climatic changes.”

33 National Research Council (U.S.).;National Research Council (U.S.).;National Academies Press (U.S.), Colorado River Basin water management.

34 US Bureau of Reclamation, River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, Interim Report No. 1.

35 Kuhn, The Colorado River: The Story of a Quest for Certainty on a Diminishing River, 78.

36 John Entsminger, “author interview.”

37 Mulroy, “Navigating the Future of the Colorado River.”

38 US Bureau of Reclamation, AOP.

39 US Bureau of Reclamation, Final Environmental Impact Assessment, Yuma Desalting Plant.

40 US Bureau of Reclamation, AOP.

41 McKinnon, “New Yuma reservoir is a water saver.”

42 US Bureau of Reclamation, “Drop 2 Reservoir - FAQs.”

43 McKinnon, “New Yuma reservoir is a water saver.”

44 Thinking Like a River Basin, 30.

45 Green, “Not this water.”


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Last modified Fri, 3 Aug, 2012 at 12:43