Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Colorado River and the Politics of Water

The Colorado River Watershed
A bit of back-page news from this week that is actually a bit of a ground-shaker: The varied parties to The Colorado Water Compact, which include CA, AZ, NV, UT, CO, NM, and Mexico, have agreed in principle to amend the landmark 1922 agreement on how to allocate the water from the Colorado River watershed. The communities and monied assets that depend on this trickle of desert water include Colorado's western slope, Phoenix, the city of Las Vegas including a large part of its power grid generated at Hoover Dam, Los Angeles and San Diego via extensive canal systems, and commercial farming in the valleys of southern California. A lot of stuff. Vegas and Phoenix would not exist without it, neither would the Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.

I first became interested in this oddly academic topic after picking up a dog-eared copy of Cadillac Desert sometime in college. I was also making my way through Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang, and Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the time. Cadillac Desert may be more of an enduring classic of the southwest than even those two blinding lights, ironic because of its dry, non-stylized, non-beer fueled, non-fiction subject.

Bishop Lamy's Chapel
In any case, there's an entire chapter in there about the original Colorado River Compact and how it all went down just north of Santa Fe here at Bishop's Lodge. A bunch of old guys sat down in a room right there at the Lodge and parceled out 90% of the available fresh water in the southwest, sent it out to the necessary law-making bodies, and it became law. Their signatures on the agreement a metaphorical spigot on the mighty Colorado, the very force of nature coursing down through millennia(?) of rock to route-out the mighty Grand Canyon! Funny thing is they screwed it all up, generously over-estimating average water flows by a not insignificant amount. For several decades now the river runs dry before making the Mexico border, and even in wet years it might carry only brine and brackish water unusable for crops or irrigation. The Mexicans have a problem with this but seeing as they are the party most down-river they've had little recourse other than monetary settlements.

Thought I'd try something a little different with a carousel of awesome books here

A portion of New Mexico's allotment actually arrives into the Chama via the extravagantly expensive and long-disputed San Juan Diversion Project. Water levels at El Vado and Abiqiui would be a lot lower if weren't for a bit of engineering and piped in runoff from the peaks above Pagosa.

In any case, this fascinating historical footnote always crosses my mind when I'm running or cycling past Bishop Lamy's old place. Interesting stuff. Reisner's book has been updated several times over the years and is still the benchmark for those seeking an understanding of the value and politics of water in the southwest.


  1. What a great post! I had no idea about the water allotment issues. Also, good carousel widget!

  2. Thank you, and thank you. Snowpack, runoff, seasonal rainfall - all that stuff has an importance that's pretty wide in scope. With it, a patch of desert dirt can be worth a small fortune. Without it, it remains just a worthless patch of desert dirt.



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