A Basin in the Sun

Written by Spencer Anderson, ESLLC 2017-2018

The Colorado River Compact was drawn in 1922 as a sustainable way for the western United States to source water from the river. It divides up the river into upper and lower sections. Every tributary upstream of Lake Powell makes up the upper basin. This includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. The lower basin includes Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Under the current agreement, water is divided up based on the population needs in 1922 and the amount of water each state’s rainfall gives to the river. 90% of the river is allotted to U.S. states, 45% to each basin. The other 10% is allotted to Mexico. The system is even as far as water use, but conflicts between states have arisen. In 1934, Arizona called on the National Guard when California decided to dam the river upstream of a major city.

The biggest problem with the agreement is that the document uses the wrong amount of water as a baseline. The surveys for the agreement were taken in a record snowfall year. In reality the river has a lot less water than the agreement predicts. In five years the document turns 100. In that time, humans have gone to the moon and invented the Snuggie, but most importantly the southwest U.S. has developed. The population of the American southwest has increased by more than 800% since 1922. With that rise in population comes a proportional rise in water use. If followed as it stands today, the compact will stunt the future growth of major U.S. cities and agriculture.

The main problem with redrawing the agreement is that every state would have to decrease their usage, therefore no states will come to the table. My solution isn’t perfect, but it’s a start. The EPA needs to strongarm states into playing nice by threatening federal funding, and then draft a sustainable, fair agreement that will be phased in slowly over the course of twenty years to allow for changes to current infrastructure. The agreement would be percentage based, and would flex yearly depending on snowfall estimates. It would require both the president and congress to do. It would cause fights and unrest, but it must be done. Every year, dams get lower and the earth gets hotter. Lake Mead is 80 feet lower than normal, and engineers worry that if the levels continue to drop they won’t have enough water to run the hydroelectric plant Hoover Dam. The Colorado must be used efficiently and effectively if we want sustainable.

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