NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Colorado River Water Managers Can Imagine The Future And It Doesn’t Look Pretty

Luke Runyon
Lake Mead's bath tub ring has become the de facto symbol of the overallocated Colorado River system.

Fear can be a powerful motivator.

The mention of one plausible future scenario along the Colorado River is enough to make some water managers in the West break into a sweat. It’s called the Compact Call, and even though it’s never happened — and is years away from ever happening — its invocation conjures up dystopian imagery of a southwest battling over scarce water supplies.

Imagine this: It’s 2030. The Colorado River, sapped by record high temperatures, is seeing its biggest reservoirs — Lakes Powell and Mead — plummet to near dead pool elevations.

Negotiations to mandate increased water conservation in Arizona and California have stalled. Throughout the southwest, frequent water shortages continue to scare off new businesses.

Bad blood among states simmering for years boils over with an exchange of nasty letters. Water managers in California, receiving less and less water from the Colorado River each year, feel slighted and start making demands for their share, kicking off a decade long legal battle. Ripples are felt all the way from Los Angeles to Denver.

To some water managers this nightmare is far from fiction. And without immediate action it could very well come true.

“It’s like a train wreck happening in glacial speed,” says Andy Mueller, Colorado River District general manager in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. “We’ll see it coming. I believe we see it coming now.”

Credit Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
A U.S. Bureau of Reclamation map shows how the Colorado River watershed is divided into the Upper and Lower Basins.

The ‘cornerstone’

To talk about the Colorado River’s present and future, you need to start in the past. One of the most important dates in the river’s history is Nov. 24, 1922, when leaders from the seven Western states that rely on the river met at a Santa Fe, New Mexico resort to sign the Colorado River Compact.

“It’s the cornerstone of how we allocate water on the Colorado River,” Mueller says. “On that cornerstone is built an incredible scaffolding of complex agreements, but it’s all based on that 1922 compact.”

Pilloried for decades for its structural problems, the compact did accomplish a few basic things. To make it easier to govern, the agreement divided the river into halves: the Upper and Lower Basins. The Upper Basin includes the snowy Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. The Lower is home to the desert landscapes of Arizona, Nevada and California.

Engineers used stream gauge data to estimate the river’s annual flow and the politicians took those measurements to divide the water amongst themselves. Each basin got 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is enough water to supply about two households annually) and each state within the basin got a portion of the water. California then and today is the largest user of Colorado River water.

California’s use of the river’s water is what brought these political figures together in the first place, Mueller says. Concerns about the state’s rapid development were growing louder. If the whole watershed functioned under the frontier water law doctrine of prior appropriation (where the person who claims the water first is given priority in receiving it) California could end up owning every drop.

“The reality is that the Lower Basin had the upper hand in those negotiations,” Mueller says. “They were developing faster.”

To get a deal, the Upper Basin agreed that Lower Basin states would be guaranteed a certain amount of water right at the line that divides their two regions. Some years would be wetter, some would be drier, but the decade-long rolling average couldn’t dip below 75 million acre feet of water, measured at a spot just below Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona. If it did drop below that point, then the Lower Basin could come calling for its water.

This system works fine when there’s enough water to go around. But that’s the signature bug of the Colorado River: More water exists on paper than in reality.

Credit U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Glen Canyon Dam impounds Lake Powell, the Colorado River's second-largest reservoir at the Utah, Arizona border.

The nightmare scenario

A pitiful winter snowpack has caused water levels in the system’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to drop. Combined storage within the entire Colorado River system is projected to be less than half full — 48 percent of capacity — by the end of September.

Factor in climate change and the situation becomes more dire. Higher temperatures sapped roughly one-third of the river’s flow from 2000 to 2014. The rising heat is also causing the snow that feeds the river to fall more often as rain, which is harder to capture and ration.

The more river models the Bureau of Reclamation runs, the easier it is to imagine the Lower Basin someday making the dreaded compact call.

“It’s never happened. We don’t want to see it happen,” Mueller says. “Because the chaos ... would cause economic uncertainty throughout the state.”

Until now, the compact call has just been an interesting thought experiment. Its implementation would be full of unanswered legal questions. It’s unclear how the Lower Basin would even relay the message that it wanted its water.

“Since we haven’t ever had it it’s kind of hard to know, but I think it would probably take the form of a formal demand,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder.

She served in the Interior Department under President Obama. Castle’s work is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

That formal demand would set off a cascade of effects throughout the Upper Basin. Water rights put in place after the 1922 Compact would be in jeopardy, Castle says. States like Colorado and Utah would have to rein in their own water use in order to meet the downstream obligations.

“The state [of Colorado] would likely start shutting down water rights from the most junior to as far as they had to go in that priority order,” she says.

Those junior rights are often owned by cities and other municipal water providers. A call would leave them scrambling to find more water supplies so faucets didn’t run dry. In a 2005 publication former Colorado River District general manager Eric Kuhn detailed a bleak future under a call.

In it, Kuhn says the mere mention of a compact call is “a frightening thought.” If it were to happen states would have a wide array of legal and technical issues to figure out, like how water is measured in the Colorado River’s tributaries and a more detailed explanation of water delivery obligations to Mexico.

A call could put an end to new water storage projects in the Colorado River Basin, forcing states to focus all their energy on conservation and new technologies like desalination.

Kuhn takes several pages to lay out his nightmare vision. In his writing the compact call is less a moment in time and more of an era that would define the southwest for a generation. He imagines a scenario marked by Supreme Court battles among states, lawsuits from southwestern farmers and tribal leaders, and a rash of freshwater pipelines spreading across the West.

After a series of hypothetical legal losses, Kuhn’s story ends with Upper Basin leaders considering a possible secession from the United States to retain their Colorado River water.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

As of 2016 the Upper Basin is going above and beyond its ten-year obligation to the Lower Basin. According to the Upper Colorado River Commission, the 10-year total flow, starting in 2007, was just over 91 million acre-feet, well above the obligated 75 million acre-feet. But continuing dry conditions like those recorded during the winter of 2018 could quickly erode that.

“Things can get bad very quickly,” Castle says. “We have to be ready. We don’t want to make decisions about how we’re going to handle a compact call should one occur when it’s right there in front of us.”

In Colorado, the largest user of the Colorado River’s water in the Upper Basin, the threat of a compact call has prompted ongoing discussions within the state engineer’s office.

“Broadly speaking, yes, Colorado participates in ongoing efforts, alongside interstate partners, to manage this concern,” says Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The bulk of our collective energy, however, is to take steps through risk assessment, policies and technical planning to avoid a scenario like this in the first place.”

Those plans are closely held to avoid intrastate fights over future water plans, the Colorado River District’s Andy Mueller says. The state also wouldn’t want to give other Colorado River water users insight into future legal strategy should the call move from thought experiment to reality.

While the thought of a Compact Call strikes fear into Upper Basin water managers, it’s less on the minds of their Lower Basin counterparts.

“I was surprised to hear the Upper Basin express their concerns and fears when it’s not something we’ve even thought much about in the Lower Basin,” says Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the water wholesaler for the greater Los Angeles area.

“But every time we have a conversation with the Upper Basin you can tell it’s very front and foremost in their minds as something that they really want to work on and avoid,” he says.

For a call to materialize, water managers like Kightlinger and farmers throughout the southwest would need to apply pressure to their state leaders. And right now, he says they have way bigger fish to fry, like keeping Lake Mead from entering into shortage and negotiating a drought contingency plan that would require Lower Basin states to cut their water use sooner than is currently required.

But Kightlinger says he understands the Upper Basin’s fears.

“We are going to have shortages. We are going to have challenges,” he says. “But I also believe that the complex process and lengthy battle that a Supreme Court battle would take will drive the agencies to work and resolve these issues in some other fashion other than a compact call.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
Related Content