Colorado water is also Colorado history. From the first decreed water right in 1852, to the prior appropriation doctrine in 1876, to the apportionment of the Colorado River in 1922, to drought in 2022, Colorado water has never been more precious nor more important to protect.
On June 15, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation ordered the Colorado River Basin States to come up with a plan to cut water use or the federal government would do it for them. Though the federal government has special standing for such edicts in the Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada), history tells us it has no such power over Colorado or the Upper Basin.
Like a treaty between the states, the 1922 Colorado River Compact protects our water against powerful downstream states like California and ensures we have critical supplies for beneficial uses.
The 1922 Compact was a compromise that apportioned the waters of the Colorado River between the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and part of New Mexico) and Lower Basin (California, Arizona, Nevada and part of New Mexico). For years afterward, Arizona had refused to ratify the Compact and the Lower Basin States couldn’t agree how to divide their share.
Six years later, Congress broke the stalemate and goaded Arizona to ratify the Compact. The Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928 authorized a network of infrastructure in the Lower Basin including the iconic Hoover Dam. As the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in Arizona v. California in 1963, the Act also elevated the Secretary of the Interior to water master of the Lower Basin. Congress gave the Secretary authority not only to carry out the allocations to the Lower Basin States but to decide which users within each State were entitled to water.
In times of drought, the federal government has authority to apportion shortages among the Lower Basin States — but not over Colorado or the Upper Basin States. The Upper Basin States settled their differences with the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact. The Upper Basin States have long lived within their means relative to Compact water. In fact, Colorado has yet to use all of its apportioned share.
Just as water is entwined with its history, Colorado’s Compact water will define its future. A complex system of federal reservoirs and infrastructure benefits the Upper Basin States. But decisions about Colorado’s water future must be made by Coloradans with full involvement of Colorado’s water providers.
Renegotiating the Compact or deferring to the federal government is not in Colorado’s best interests. Protecting our Compact water and equitably managing shortages consistent with the Compact should be our highest priorities. This will help protect against drought and provide water for food security, drinking, industry, wildlife and recreation.
Former assistant director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources
Former executive director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources
Former director, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Former director, Colorado Division of Water Resources and state engineer
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