Divvying Up the Mighty Colorado
Demands Exist on Every Drop of Water in the River
Listen to Elizabeth Arnold's report.
The Colorado River flowing through Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Twenty-five million people in seven Western states and Mexico depend on the river's water.
Credit: © CORBIS
Explorer John Wesley Powell and Tay-Gu, a great chief of the Painte Indians, during an 1873 expedition through the Colorado River. The trip produced a U.S. geological survey of the river.
Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS
A member of the Powell expedition took this photograph of the Colorado River winding through Glen Canyon sometime in the 1870s.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives
Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. The agreement divided Colorado River water between upper and lower basin states.
Credit: Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.
The Glen Canyon Dam site, Feb. 19, 1959.
Credit: Courtesy Utah State Historical Society/Division of State History
Glen Canyon Dam.
Credit: Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.
Aug. 27, 2003 -- What do a glass of water in Los Angeles, a sprinkler in Phoenix, a toilet in Denver and a fountain in Las Vegas have in common? It's likely that much of the water in each comes from the same place: the Colorado River.
Jan. 1, 2003: NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the federal government's plans to reduce the flow of Colorado River water to California.
The Colorado distributes more water to users both in and outside of its basin than any other river system in the world. As NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports, every drop of the river -- and then some -- has already been promised to someone, somewhere.
Twenty-five million people in seven Western states and Mexico rely on the flow of the Colorado River; 30 million depend on electricity from the hydropower it generates. So many demands exist on the river's water that what starts out as a trickle of snow melt in Wyoming's Wind River Range rarely reaches its natural destination in the Sea of Cortez. Ten major dams and 80 major diversions leave nothing but a salt flat at the river's mouth.
The history of the Colorado is as colorful as it is controversial. In 1869, the man who first scouted it, Major John Wesley Powell, declared that "there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated." But others who settled in the West disagreed, and by the 20th century, massive projects were underway to dam and divert the river.
As commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation during the era of the big dams, Floyd Dominy presided over the plumbing of the Colorado. His blueprint was what came to be known as the law of the river, a 1922 compact that split Western states into an upper and lower basin, dividing Colorado River water equally between them. It was an insurance policy for the upper basin states -- Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico -- whose representatives worried that the faster-growing lower basin states -- California, Nevada and Arizona -- would use more water and win legal claim to it. Because the river's flow fluctuated widely from year to year, Dominy fought hard for the last and most controversial of the big dams, Glen Canyon.
The Colorado River Compact requires upper basin states to produce 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year. (Just one acre-foot is enough to cover a football field one foot deep.) "Glen Canyon [Dam] is absolutely essential to supply that steady flow of water from the good to the bad years," Dominy says.
Today, Glen Canyon Dam is the physical manifestation of the Colorado River Compact. But there's just one problem. When the deal was worked out, it was a high-water year. The amount of water in the river was hugely overestimated. Add to that a five-year drought, and the Colorado is working overtime. It's over-promised, over-committed and overdrawn.
Attorney Bill Swan is right in the middle of the tension that situation creates. He's helped negotiate agreements between the states over water for more than 30 years. He says currently the strain is between Colorado and California.
"Colorado probably produces 70 percent of the water in the whole river, but Colorado has an entitlement that's smaller than the state of California," Swan says. "California contributes no water to the river… If you're Colorado, you kind of think it's your river. You don't like the fact that you provide the water to a state down below that doesn't… contribute anything to the river... it just doesn't make you feel good."
Some Colorado officials are thinking about reviving the era of big projects with a massive diversion called the "Big Straw." It would suck up the Colorado River's water before it ever reaches California and pump it east 200 miles up and over the Rocky Mountains to the densely populated front range. Two other huge pipeline projects are being discussed in Arizona and Utah. Estimates suggest all three projects would divert some 50,000 acre feet of water a year.
The dispute over the distribution of the Colorado River embodies critical issues in the region: the over-appropriation of water and the rapidly changing face of the West, compounded by population growth and ecological needs. There are those who believe market forces will solve the problem, for example, by allowing farmers -- whose legal rights to the river trump those of others -- to sell water to cities. There are those who believe the answer lies in a continuation of the dam era, with bigger, bolder, more efficient water projects. And there are even those who believe the Colorado River should simply be set free, the Glen Canyon Dam torn down.
Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, a former governor of Arizona, says he believes there's enough water to accommodate all of these views.
"We've demonstrated our capacity to manage and alter natural systems to our hearts' content," Babbit says. "If we can build Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon… and all these gigantic canals, we certainly have the capacity to revisit the system and… set up markets to reallocate water more efficiently and make a public commitment to get some of that water back in these rivers. We can say to our children, 'you know, the river still runs to the sea.'"
MovingWaters.org: A Seven-State Project Exploring the History and Meaning of the Colorado River
A history of the Colorado River Compact and its policy implications, from the University of Arizona
National Park Service: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
KUED.org offers a wealth of historical photos of the Glen Canyon area before and after the construction of the dam.
Historical photos of the Glen Canyon area are available from the University of Utah.
A timeline of exploration and construction along the Colorado River, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas