August 23, 2008

Law of the river: Don't dis the Colorado River Compact


Salt Lake Tribune

Herbert Hoover and dignitaries signing the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The Colorado River Compact is like the Constitution. Many sensible people believe that it should be amended, but they're scared as hell of what might happen if a convention were called to do just that.

Nasty, unexpected things could come to pass, like populous, vote-rich California making a play to siphon even more water from the already overallocated Colorado River.

That's why there was a collective gasp across the so-called Upper Basin states, including Utah, when Sen. John McCain suggested the other day that the Colorado River Compact "obviously" should be renegotiated. Perhaps the good senator was having a senior moment.

The compact is the linchpin in a series of agreements, treaties, laws and court rulings that have evolved since the 1920s to allocate the water in the Colorado River among seven Western states and Mexico. The river is divided into the Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico) and Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada, California). Each basin is allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of water a year. Mexico gets 1.5 million acre-feet.

Unfortunately, when the compact was negotiated in 1922, the West was wetter than it is now. In this decade, the Colorado often has fallen short of the 16.5 million acre-feet of flow that the compact anticipates.

Some of that annual flow can be carried over from one year to another behind the giant dams, including Hoover and Glen Canyon, that the Bureau of Reclamation built. But in a prolonged drought, even those resources could be tapped out. Some 30 million people in the West rely on that water, and that number is growing rapidly.

Late last year, the parties to the compact came up with a new agreement to better manage the river, particularly lakes Mead and Powell, during a drought. The hope was to make it easier for the Lower Basin states to negotiate among themselves to manage shortages and give the Upper Basin states, whose water rights are junior to those of California, greater assurance that their allocations are secure.

No sensible people in the West should want to duke it out in Congress or the courts when water gets really scarce. Water wars are never pretty.

The compact, flawed though it is, was designed to prevent that, and no westerner, McCain included, should talk lightly of renegotiating it.