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Published November 14, 2022
A University of Wyoming faculty member edited a new book that examines the Colorado River system and the Colorado River Compact, a century-old water-use agreement among seven basin states.
“Cornerstone at the Confluence: Navigating the Colorado River Compact’s Next Century,” a new book edited by Jason Robison, a professor in the UW College of Law, brings together an array of voices to reflect on this historic document and the broader law of the river -- and to envision the future. Published by the University of Arizona Press, the book is 328 pages and includes Colorado River essays from 20 esteemed authors.
Signed Nov. 24, 1922, the Colorado River Compact is the cornerstone of an elaborate body of laws colloquially called the “law of the river” that controls how humans use water from the river system dubbed the “American Nile.”
“The foundational law along ‘America’s Nile,’ the Colorado River Compact is turning a century old this Nov. 24, and this historic mark arrives in unprecedented circumstances due to climate change and pressing efforts to address its impacts on the basin’s hydrology,” Robison says. “‘Cornerstone’ sheds light on the status quo and its backstory and offers food for thought about navigating the next century.”
At least 40 million people draw water from the Colorado River system. The compact applies to Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Colorado River Basin -- an area of roughly 112,00 square miles that runs from Wyoming and Colorado down to Lee Ferry in northern Arizona, just downstream of Lake Powell. That reservoir provides critical water storage for the Upper Basin states and is only 23.9 percent full. Its downstream counterpart, Lake Mead, is now 28.2 percent full.
Under the compact, the Upper Basin states have to avoid depleting Lee Ferry flows below 75 million acre feet during any 10-year period so as to provide water to the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. The Upper Basin states also are obligated to contribute Lee Ferry flows toward a 1.5 million-acre feet entitlement held by Mexico. One acre foot of water is defined as one acre of water a foot deep, which translates to roughly enough water for a family of four for one year.
However, the Colorado River Basin is experiencing a 22-year megadrought some scientists suggest reflects regional aridification. Within this changing landscape, the Colorado River Compact is turning 100 years old, and policymakers are negotiating new management rules for the river system, which must be completed by 2026.
The book leverages the centennial year to invite conversation about a range of challenging topics: how to apportion the Colorado River system’s flows in light of climate change; how to manage environmental concerns such as ecosystem restoration and biodiversity protection; and how to address long-standing issues of water justice facing the basin’s 30 tribal sovereigns.
In a variety of ways, the book’s contributors all touch on the core concept -- equity -- embedded within the compact, teeing up what is perhaps the foundational topic confronted: Who should have a seat at the table of Colorado River governance?
Robison was lead editor in 2020 of “Vision & Place: John Wesley Powell and Reimagining the Colorado River Basin.” He also writes the long-running treatise “Law of Water Rights and Resources.”