Episode 18: November 23rd, 1922
A century ago in the Colorado River Compact: Wordsmithing details as time runs short
By Eric Kuhn and John Fleck
It was snowing like crazy at Bishop’s Lodge outside Santa Fe as the Colorado River Commission Chairman Herbert Hoover called the 24th meeting to order at 9:45 AM on the morning of Nov. 23, 1922. The Commission had only about 30 hours left before its Friday afternoon target for signing the compact and the “punch list” was long. Conceptually, the commissioners agreed on all of the compact’s major provisions, but drafting challenges remained.
They began with a discussion of “domestic.” For the purposes of Articles III (e) and IV, rather than include a long list of water uses like mining, milling, manufacturing, and so on, they decided to define a broad group of uses as “domestic.” They could agree on what it didn’t include – it didn’t include agricultural, power generation, and navigation, so everything else would be domestic. But it wasn’t that simple. What if a mine had its own hydroelectric power plant? Was that a mining or a power generation purpose? They ended up agreeing to “The term ‘domestic use’ shall include the use of water for household, stock, municipal, mining, milling, industrial, and other like purposes, but shall exclude the generation of electrical power.”
The discussion then turned to Article III(d). Overnight Winfield Norviel had changed his mind. He was now OK with dropping the four million acre-feet minimum annual Lee Ferry flow requirement. It was one of many compromises Norviel had made during the negotiations, and it wouldn’t be his last.
The Commission then had a long and difficult conversation about Article IV, the priority of uses. The article had three paragraphs
- IV(a) was a statement that the Colorado River was no longer navigable, but with language added that if Congress did not agree, the “the other provisions of this compact shall nevertheless remain binding.”
- IV(b) made it clear power generation was a legal use but made it subservient to agricultural and domestic uses.
- IV(c) stated that this article did not apply to the internal appropriation, use, and distribution of water within a state.
Utah’s R.E. Caldwell was opposed to the provision protecting the compact if Congress didn’t accept the navigation clause. Although he understood the reason Hoover suggested including the provision, his concern was including the language would be giving Congress the opportunity to step in and interfere with water projects within states. Ultimately, Caldwell agreed that, despite his objections, he would not vote against “the pact.”
Similarly, Colorado’s Delph Carpenter wanted to expand paragraph IV©, but ultimately agreed to only minor wording changes.
By the end of the 24th meeting, which lasted much of the day, their punch list has been whittled down to several minor wording changes and paragraph VIII. Hoover adjourned the meeting at 3 PM but asked the drafting committee to reconvene immediately. The 25th meeting would convene at the Chairman’s call after the drafting committee had done its work.
Hoover called the 25th meeting for 7:30 PM that evening. The Commission then went through a list of editing changes. Importantly, the Commission finally reached agreement on Article I, the purpose of the compact:
The major purposes of this compact are to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System; to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water, to promote interstate comity; to remove causes of present and future controversies; and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods. To these ends the Colorado River Basin is divided into two Basins, and an apportionment of the use of part of the water of the Colorado River System is made to each of them with the provision that further equitable apportionments may be made.