Colorado River Compact Centennial
100 Years Ago in the Negotiation of the Colorado River Compact
In 1922, western leaders met in a year-long series of meetings to develop one of the legal cornerstones of water development in western North America - the Colorado River Compact. Though flawed in many ways, the compact provided a foundation for water management in seven states in the United States and two in Mexico.
The Utton Center's John Fleck and Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, are writing a series of articles about its development - the false starts, confusion, and controversies that culminated in a fateful meeting in Santa Fe in November of 1922 that changed the West forever.
Kuhn and Fleck are the authors of the acclaimed book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.
As the seven Colorado River Basin states gathered in early 1922 to begin discussing the river's future, Herbert Hoover’s words a century ago were chosen with care. Might it be possible, he wondered, for the state officials gathered around him that day “to agree upon a compact between the seven states of the Colorado Basin, providing for an equitable division of the water supply of the Colorado River”?
With a single June 1922 decision, the United States Supreme Court changed the direction and tone of the compact negotiations. In a unanimous ruling, on June 5, 1922, the court issued its decision in Wyoming v. Colorado, ruling that Colorado could not develop waters of the Laramie River in a manner that ignored and injured downstream senior appropriators in Wyoming. That seemed to mean that, absent a negotiated agreement to the contrary - a compact - California and the other rapidly growing Lower Colorado River states would get all of the river's water.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, was off the beaten path in November 1922. That was the point.
From the beginning, the negotiators gathered to settle the allocation of the Colorado River, wresting with three crucial questions:
- How should the water be divided?
- How should the basin be governed going forward?
- How much water did they actually have to work with?
As the Colorado River Commission’s members gathering Nov. 12, 1922, they began discussing what would become the centerpiece of the final deal – the idea of dividing the Basin in two.
As the Colorado River Compact Commission’s negotiators returned to their task on the morning of Nov. 13, 1922, the shape of the compact was beginning to emerge into view, as Arizona agreed to the idea of dividing the basin in two. But the question of how to divide the water remained a difficult question.
As the Colorado River Commission’s members wrestled with the details of water allocation, they also struggled to decide whether building a dam – something that everyone hoped would happen – should be part of the Compact itself.
Deciding to divide the Colorado River in two created the need for a rule governing how much water the states of the river’s Upper Basin would need to send downstream to the Lower Basin.
It was Nov. 16, 1922, when the Colorado River Compact negotiators settled on the most important part of their agreement – how much water the Upper Basin would have to send downstream for use in the Lower Basin. But they did it with a false promise that echoes today – the idea that there was a surplus in the river.
As the Compact Commissioners took a day off from the negotiations, the outside world was beginning to learn about the shape of the deal. And as word filtered out, Arizona’s governor elect offered a warning.
As the Colorado River Compact negotiators returned to their talks Nov. 19, 1922, they wrestled with three crucial questions that linger today: accounting for water in Arizona’s tributaries, water for Native American communities, and water for Mexico.
On Nov. 20, 1922, the historic injustice that Colorado River management imposed on Native American communities was locked into law with little discussion, while the commissioners quickly turned to Arizona’s water needs and the need to protect the Imperial Valley from flooding.
With a break in the talks, we began to see the view from afar, as Herbert Hoover began the job of selling the Compact to a waiting nation, and Arizona continued to worry about its share.
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.
The final day of the Colorado River Compact negotiations seemed almost anticlimactic. A bit of wordsmithing, and the Commissioners headed down the road to New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors to sign the Colorado River Compact.
As the Colorado River Compact’s negotiators trekked home in the final week of November 1922 following the completion of their task, the rhetoric soared. Newspapers across the basin published the text of the Compact in full, and the leaders of the negotiation effort fanned out to praise the effort and lay the groundwork for the next steps.
After signing the Colorado River Compact on Friday, Nov. 24, 1922, the commissioners and their advisors returned to their home states. The compact would not become effective until it had been ratified by the legislatures of each of the states and the United States Congress. It was now time to prepare reports, answer questions, and work for state approval. The ratification process was difficult. It would take 78 months before Congress finally approved a six-state pact and 22 years before all seven states agreed to it.