“a veritable garden spot”

Albuquerque’s “Barr Irrigation District”, circa July 2022

Barr Irrigation District

The home of the ill-fated “Barr Irrigation District” is not one of Albuquerque’s scenic destinations.

Perched on low sand hills between Albuquerque’s soft industrial underbelly and the city’s “Sunport” (our marketing appellation for what a lesser metropolis might call an “airport”), the old irrigation district land is today home to an interstate, a power plant, a couple petroleum tank farms, junkyards, and “Fresh and Clean Portable Restrooms”.

But in 1912, when the Barr Irrigation District first glimmered in the eyes of Albuquerque boosters, it was going to “transform the central Rio Grande valley into a veritable garden spot.” A thousand acres of crops, “marketed here for home consumption and shipment” would be “the best thing for Albuquerque’s growth and prosperity” – “a rich agricultural district with this city as the center and distributing point”. (Albuquerque Journal, Jan. 13, 1912)

All that was needed was water, and H.J. Buell, an “irrigation expert” down from Denver, had the answer – “a pumping system operated by electric power”!

“Water in abundance is found at comparatively shallow depth,” the Albuquerque Journal explained in January 1912. The Journal suggested a great “free water” racket to support the enterprise: farmers could sell their rights to surface water flowing through ditches “for a substantial sum” and use the money to build more pumps and irrigate more land. (Research note: This is one of the earliest references I’ve found to sale of water rights in the valley as an economic scheme.)

As near as we can tell, a few farmers did, in fact, sign up with Buell and pump water up to the sandhills. But as the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District made farming in the valley below more attractive by draining swampland and re-jiggering the irrigation works, the project faltered. In the ensuing years, the low sandhill area was institionally reconfigured as the ~800-ish acre “Barr Irrigation District”, the the scheme shifted from pumping groundwater to making the area an extension of the Conservancy District’s existing valley floor irrigation system, pumping ditch water instead.

Like much about the valley’s irrigation schemes, success hinged on find a source of “other people’s money” to pay for it, and when efforts at procuring federal cash failed in the 1930s, the Barr Irrigation District faded from view.

Themes from the book

Two holiday weekend diversions took me into this part of the valley south of Albuquerque – me on a Canada Day weekend bike ride with Scot, and Bob in the archives after I returned from the ride and peppered him with questions. (Having a Regents Professor with mad skills as my “research assistant” for the new book is a pretty sweet perk of the current project. Plus #GeographyByBike – Scot’s importance as a research assistant in this part of the project is crucial.)

Down the hill from the never-realized Barr Irrigation District is the Barr Canal. It’s one of those Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District ditches that has a distinctly “modern” feel – the sharp straight lines of 1920s engineering superimposed over the meanders that went before.

When I say this part of our valley might not qualify as one of Albuquerque’s scenic destinations, I say so with tongue slightly askew. It’s actually an aesthetically fascinating area, a strange mix of Charles Sheeler-esque industrial majesty, movie-set post-apocalyptic junk, and farm. My crazy GPS bike riding map games suggested this was an under-explored piece of Albuquerque, a shortcoming that, with Scot’s help, I’m working to correct.

This part of the junkyard included piles of junked dumpsters. It looked like the graffiti was applied before the container’s arrival.

Scot and I this weekend rode up the Barr from the south, where it cuts through the Albuquerque Metal Recycling yards. ‘Round the back, the Barr splits the main recycling yard from its more post-apocalyptic back acres, the place where the junk yard seems to junk its junk.

It includes trashed trucks from UPS and Federal Express, and (my favorite part) an area devoted to junked dumpsters.

Mostly it was just a bike ride, but when we’re riding the valley floor, there really is no such thing as “just a bike ride”. I’m puzzling out the geography of the valley floor – why some places are homes and twisty streets, some areas were left as big farm fields, and some places got stuck with the city’s junkyards.

In his fascinating new book Tributary Voices, Paul Formisano takes on the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about the colonial watering of the west:

Striving to return to the garden once lost through the Fall, nineteenth-century beliefs about the arid West dictated man’s divine right to drastically alter the region for the onward march of progress and civilization.

Standing alongside Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier myth, the garden myth spilled awkwardly into 20th century Albuquerque in places like the Barr Irrigation District.

I don’t know that the Barr and this stretch of Albuquerque’s southeast valley will make it into the new book Bob and I are writing (Ribbons of Green: The Rio Grande and the Making of a Modern American City, available several years from now, once we finish writing it, at a fine bookseller near you). We have too many stories already. But it illustrates a bunch of our central themes.

  • The myths of agriculture: Albuquerque and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley may never have had the dreamy agricultural past to which the boosters claimed they wanted to return, and to which the modern water policy boosters still often mythologize. But true or not, the vision shaped the city we became.
  • The role of institutions: In addition to the Barr Irrigation District, this part of the valley was home to the brief life of something called the “South Albuquerque Drainage District”. Formed in 1920, the District never seems to have gotten off the ground, and was subsumed into the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District when it was formed in the years that followed. In developing our water management institutions, scale mattered.
  • The greening (junkyarding?) of the valley floor: The once-swampy lowlands of the valley floor were changed forever when the Conservancy District’s draglines sliced through in the 1930s, digging the low-lying ditches we call “drains” that were the district’s most important accomplishment.

The greening of the valley floor

Junkyards and farms along the Barr Canal, Albuquerque, 2022

This stretch of the Barr is my new favorite Albuquerque ditchbank ride (sorry, Los Griegos!).

Up from Rossmoor Road, passage through the junkyard and into the old Schwartzman farm is weird. Smashed cars being ground up for scrap to right of us, scrapped UPS trucks to the left of us, the Barr in between running full and happy right now, and up ahead, one of the last big commercial alfalfa fields in the county being cut.

On lands that seem not to have been farmed or even settled during Albuquerque’s colonial period, the farm and the junkyard sit on land that was an old stockyard and meat processing plant run until the early 1980s by the Schwartzman family. While the sandy soil and lack of drainage may have made this part of the valley relatively less attractive than Astrisco and surrounding villages across the river, the railyards, and then drainage, made the area ideal for Albuquerque’s industrial underbelly.

The Schwartzman land has been slowly but surely carved up in recent decades, but when Scot and I left the awkward confines of the junkyards onto an open ditchbank flanked by fields, a farmer was still on the land, spending their Canada Day holiday weekend methodically cutting hay.


Rio Grande at Albuquerque, June 20, 2022

Where peaceful Rivers soft and slow
Amid the verdant Landskip flow.


My friend Mary Harner, who loves and thinks about rivers more/better than anyone I know, is in town.

We found time this morning for a walk along our shared passion, the Rio Grande. After 78 days without rain, the monsoon bloomed on Friday, and it’s been raining since.

I sat on a downed snag poking over a muddy river as we talked. I picked idly at the moist, crumbling top layer of wood.


Smelled good.

With Eric Kuhn’s help, I found a (nearly) full Colorado River Basin reservoir!

Dillon Reservoir, June 15, 2022

When Eric and I converge on a meeting, there’s always the “Are you gonna bring a bike?” conversation.

This week it’s the Getches-Wilkinson Center’s Annual Colorado River conference, and the bike ride was a loop around Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir, on the Blue River.

It’s nearly full. The creeks feeding it were running. There was a cool breeze.

In the midst of the sturm und drang, it was lovely.

Touton: On the Colorado River, we need to cut an additional 2 to 4 million acre feet of use. Now.

I’ll let Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlin Touton explain this:

In the Colorado River Basin more conservation and demand management are needed in addition to the actions already underway. Between 2 and 4 million acre feet of additional conservation is needed just to protect critical elevations in 2023. (emphasis added)

That’s what Commissioner Touton said in a Congressional hearing today (her comments start around minute 32 in the video embedded here).

That is a stunning number. Last December, the basin leadership gathered on a Las Vegas stage at the Colorado River Water Users Association to roll out their “500+ plan.” That set a notional goal of 500,000 acre feet in conserved Lower Colorado River Basin water, and the Lower Basin states are having a hard time coming up with that. 2 million is a lot bigger than 500 thousand. 4 million is a lot bigger than 2 million.

In 2023, which is effectively now.

Touton gave the usual nod to collaborative engagement with states and tribes. But she also made a pointed threat:

It is in our authorities to act unilaterally to protect the system, and we will protect the system. (I added the emphasis, but listen for yourself. I think she did too.)


As Albuquerque’s Rio Grande dries, is the system simply functioning as we intended?

The Chamisal Lateral, a shady oasis in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.

In a sad but important way, the disastrous 2022 water year has been a gift to the writer, and I’m spending as much time as I can in reporter mode, sussing out the stories of this remarkable year.

In the new book we’re writing, Bob Berrens and I are trying to make sense of the decisions Albuquerque has made over the last century to live on the Rio Grande Valley floor – we shape river, and  the river shapes us.

2022 is a test. There is less water, a lot less. What will we do? What will this place look like as climate change makes years like this less exception and more norm?

This morning’s bike ride took me through the middle of my hypothesis, a transect across the hydrogeography of Albuquerque – up the river valley through the community of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, then out onto the riverside trails.

Los Ranchos was leafy and green. The riverside woods were parched, and the river itself, the part flowing between the levees, is at the lowest it’s been at this point in the year since 1989.

For those alarmed by the dropping river, and perhaps struck by the contrast with the buccolic, tree-lined Chamisal Lateral in the picture above, it’s worth considering why things are this way. Because it occurred to me as I enjoyed the shady lanes of Los Ranchos and then looked on at the dull agony of a drying river that this system is, in fact, working as designed.

We have a set of rules, encoded in state legislation and state and county implementation policy and therefore (I guess?) reflective of our collective values as a community that are designed to keep Los Ranchos green while allowing the river to go dry.

Rules as Water Management Design Principles Case 1: Domestic Wells

In 1953, the New Mexico legislature passed its first domestic well statute:

By reason of the varying amounts and time such water is used and the relatively small amounts of water consumed in the watering of livestock, in irrigation of not to exceed one [1] acre of noncommercial trees, lawn or garden; in household or other domestic use, …  the state engineer shall issue a permit to the applicant to so use the waters applied for.

The statute has changed over the years a bit, but its basic principle still applies. If you want to drill a domestic well at your house, you get to.

The New Mexico Office of the State Engineer does have the authority to declare something called a Domestic Well Management Area “when hydrologic conditions require added protections to prevent impairment to valid, existing surface water rights”, but that has not been done here. (Source, p. 33)

The result is a valley floor pockmarked with domestic well permits, allowing people to use water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority for indoor use, and water their lovely yards from a shallow  domestic well. But remember, those shallow aquifers are in direct connection with the river. This is basically water coming straight out of the river.

If our rules are a codification of our values and intentions, it seems here that our intention is to keep the valley floor green in times of drought. If it isn’t, we need to change the rules.

Rules as Water Management Design Principles Case 2: The Agricultural Tax Break

Our crazy smart UNM Water Resources Program student Annalise Porter recently finished a relevant piece of work on the agricultural property tax break irrigators get on the valley floor here in the greater Albuquerque  metro area. Annalise defended in the spring, and is writing an expanded version of the project for a paper for publication. Soon! I think it’s really important stuff.

I rode down street after street today of affluent Los Ranchos homes colored pink on my version of Annalise’s maps – horse pastures, hayfields, one in sunflowers, all getting the tax break. This is not commercial agriculture, or “subsistence farming”, as one court ruling suggested was the intention of the 1967 state statute. These are hobby farms.

We have a set of rules – a state statute, implemented by our local county government, that is providing a financial incentive for this use of water, which Annalise estimates at ~10,000 acre feet per year in Bernalillo County.

Ribbons of Green

The title of the proto-book is Ribbons of Green, after a line in John Van Dyke’s oddly dishonest masterpiece The Desert. In our work, Bob and I are playing with a theme – that we make progress by thinking of “the river” as more than the narrow strip that flows between the levees. Our notion of the river includes the water we move out across the valley floor – the ditches, the shallow aquifers from which we pump to water valley yards, a culturally and biologically rich and complex system lain across a valley floor where an unencumbered river once spread spring floodwaters on its own.

It is interesting to think about what the ribbons will look like five years from now, or ten. Between the levees, in the river’s main channel, the die seems cast – we’ve apparently decided as a community that we’re fine with letting it dry. Maybe Texas will have a say in what comes next – sooner or later our Rio Grande Compact obligation to get water downstream to Texas will require us to put more water into the river channel, perhaps reducing the Los Ranchos blanket of green in the process. Or reducing the green somewhere. Riverside bosque? Farms?

Perhaps the struggle to help the dwindling Rio Grande silvery minnow, our Endangered Species icon, will lead to more water in the river and less in Los Ranchos (or less somewhere).

On my book research bike rides (such a racket!), I have come to stop random ditch walkers and yard waterers and engage them in idle conversation. In general, they love the green, have little idea where the water is coming from, and are delighted with the current situation.

The Compact or the Endangered Species Act as drivers may ultimately change things, but they are something different from our community values. As seen in the Water Management Design Principles above, we seem fine with spreading the green outside across the valley floor while letting the part of the river between the levees, its main channel, go dry.

If it were otherwise, we’d have different rules.

Ditch Lobster in a Drying Griegos Lateral

Ditch lobster in a drying Griegos Lateral, Albuquerque, June 9, 2022

Sorry I didn’t have the presence of mind to give you something for scale. This little critter was a a bit smaller than my hand, crawling along the bottom of the drying Griegos Lateral, one of the 1700s-era irrigation ditches on the Albuquerque Rio Grande Valley floor.

Drying kind early this year, because climate change.

The PhD’s at the Inkstain Science Laboratory can’t agree on the spelling – “crayfish” or “crawfish”. I’m going with “ditch lobster”.

2022’s gonna be a tough year for the ditch lobsters.

A few notes on the Rio Grande in 2022

Rio Grande Monday, 6/6/22, under the I-40 bridge in Albuquerque. Not dry yet!

A few notes on New Mexico’s Rio Grande in 2022, as I collect my thoughts for a TV interview later today:

Snowpack and runoff

  • Snowpack peaked at ~80 percent of the median
  • Runoff into NM’s middle valley looks to be less than 50 percent (maybe quite a bit less?)

Dry spell

As I write this a bit before sunup on June 8, 2022, the NWS offers me a 20 percent chance of precipitation this afternoon. Through yesterday, we’ve gone 69 straight days without measurable rain or snow at the Albuquerque NWS complex. That’s the 19th longest streak on record, going back more than a century.

Put another and perhaps more meaningful way – 1.19 inches of precip at the airport since Oct. 1 is the fourth driest start to a water year in the aforementioned century-plus of records.

Current flow

Current Rio Grande flow at the San Felipe gage north of Albuquerque (my best measure of river flow entering this part of the valley) is the lowest it’s been on this date since 1989.

Current not flow

The river began drying south of Albuquerque over the weekend like that (sound effect of sharp finger snap). We had more than 20 miles go dry by Monday morning, I don’t have the latest data, but I talked to one of the folks working down there who said things are drying so fast that they’re not seeing the usual number of stranded pools as flows drop. This seems to suggest a fading shallow aquifer after our third dry year in a row.

Whither the riverside forests, our beloved bosque, which depend on that shallow aquifer? Further research needed.

Future not flow

Last year Cassandras such as myself warned of river drying in the Albuquerque reach for the first time since the 1980s. It did not dry. It rained.

Cue Cassandra, who enters stage left.

If it does not rain again, we could see drying in the Albuquerque reach this year for the first time since 1983.


Not. Upstream storage, on which we normally depend for irrigation water in the middle valley, is zip, nada, etc., except for some loose change in the couch cushions. USBR data web site is down this morning, but I think it’s fair to guess that zip, nada, etc., is similar to the lowest it’s ever been at this time of year? How could it be otherwise?

Ditches are already starting to go dry, and it’s still early June.

Municipal supplies

Albuquerque’s plan was to shut down its river diversions ~June 15 because flows would be too low. That could well happen sooner. We’ve got groundwater to fall back on, an “emergency reserve” we’ll have to tap into for the third consecutive year. (Disclosure: I serve on the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s Technical Customer Advisory Committee, where we gather monthly over Zoom to talk about things like this.)

Fond memories

I went on a bike ride Monday morning down one of the riverside trails. There’s a point just north of Central Avenue where the trail drops to a low spot that filled in late spring 2019 and stayed impassable for months.

I did not mind that my favorite trail was impassable.

I rode up to it, to the water slipping quietly back into the bosque, many many times, turned around and went another way.

Made me smile every time.

It’s quite dry there this year.


Tobacco farming and swamps in early 20th century Albuquerque

For a brief moment, this was Albuquerque’s “Tobacco Farms”. Before that, a swamp.

Albuquerque’s nod to its agricultural past, like much of the style we have adopted for ourselves, is in significant measure artifice. This is not to say that it is not in some vague sense rooted in a truth, an actual past. But we engage in the 21st century in significant embellishment, a story we spin out on the land.

One of the last large farms in the urban part of this stretch of the Rio Grande, “greater Albuquerque”, is in what we call the “South Valley”. It’s ~350 acres of alfalfa, broken in two, separated by a Walmart and an uncrossably, dangerously busy highway. (This is your bike riding author’s humble assessment, having tried on more than one occasion to cross from one part of the farm to the other without aid of automobile. Do not try this without the aid of a skilled South Valley guide.)

Some of the land is in private hands, a proto-development with alfalfa parked on the land (the owner gets a good tax break) until the market hits that point of equilibrium where building stuff on it makes sense. The rest is in public ownership, an enthusiastic but perhaps historically misguided civic sense of self, directed toward preservation of an agrarian past that, while real, looked very different than the picture above.

The early 20th century property records bear an odd name: “Consumers Tobacco Co.” The old maps also show something very different than what we see today – swamps, and lakes. “Water surface variable, very high this date. Aug. 29, 1927”, one of the old maps reads.

The tobacco name lingers in “Tobacco Farms LLC”, the legal owner of a good fraction of the land.

The swamps and lakes are long gone, drained away by deep ditches dug nearly a century ago to turn swamp into a tobacco-farming empire.

Like so many of this valley’s attempts at landing on a successful commercial crop – large scale wheat farming, tomatoes, pinto beans, orchards, sugar beets – this did not go well.

Tobacco Farms

Albuquerque Journal, March 11, 1928

The advertisement in the March 11, 1928 Albuquerque Journal seems profoundly out of place.

The signatories, the members of a consortium that in in the 1920s had formed the Consumers Tobacco Company, were an odd assortment for an agricultural enterprise – an insurance agency owner, a lawyer, four developers of subdivisions in the burgeoning area around downtown Albuquerque, a warehousing and shipping firm, the Albuquerque Gas and Electric Co., and the First National Bank.

The ad was one of many run by this group of civic boosters. Why were they – no farmers themselves – so enamored with a crop that seemed so out of place in the arid West? The answer can be found in the advertisement’s words attributed to the First National Bank: “Any crop that can increase the per acre yield of the acreage we have under cultivation will react to the benefit of the farmer and the community alike.”

That “benefit … to the community” was the key. That’s why a bunch of housing developers thought tobacco was the answer to Albuquerque’s future.

These people were pursuing Albuquerque’s destiny as a great city. The citizens of this growing metropolis needed jobs, and a contemporary understanding of the economic structure of the day – remember this was the 1920s – saw those jobs in a “Von Thunen Ring” of farming around the city. Never mind that by the 1920s Albuquerque’s food was arriving by rail, and local agriculture even then could not compete. The economic structure of the nation was shifting beneath their feet, and it was hard for the Kelehers and Clinton P. Andersons of the day to see beyond the confines of their paradigm.

Draining the swamps

Circa 1927, a plan to drain the swamps around “Hubbell Lake”

To build that city, these civic entrepreneurs needed to drain the swamps that made up the bulk of the land on the valley floor.

“It’s pretty hard to develop economically in a marsh,” New Mexico State Engineer Steve Reynolds said years later.

The most successful crop in the Middle Rio Grande – mortgages

This is the heart of the book Bob Berrens and I are writing (credit here to Bob for the work we’ve been doing on the Tobacco Farms story – Bob’s the smart guy, I’m the literary muscle, a bouncer standing at the door of the Ribbons of Green nightclub deciding which stories to let in). To understand Albuquerque’s pivot in the 1920s from swampy valley to booming city, Bob and I have been spending an inordinate amount of time staring at three sets of old maps. (Huge thanks to the staff at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District for helping us with the complete map sets.)

If you look at the Tobacco Farms maps, you see swamps, and lakes, and a bold straight line drawn through the middle of the page – “Isleta Interior Drain”. It’s deceptively simple – dig a big ditch through the marshland to lower the water table, and voila – swamp becomes farmable land!

But the deception is perhaps in the goal? If you compare the list of names on the newspaper ad above, the founders of Consumers Tobacco Company, you see not farmers but developers. You also see, crucially, a who’s who of the backers of the creation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

And if you head east across the 1927 maps, you see something striking. Before the drains were even built, while they were still dreams in the eyes of the Kelehers and Clinton P. Andersons, a carefully platted tract of homes: “Tobacco Farm Subdivision”. Immediately to the east is another ditch – “Atrisco Riverside Drain”.

We see this up and down the valley – even as the rhetoric (and some of our modern mythology?) suggests an attempt salvage and boost agriculture on the valley floor, a network of drains, and subdivision after subdivision being platted on the resulting newly reclaimed swampland.

In the 1929 census, tobacco peaked at 15 acres in Bernalillo County, never to be seen again.

Tobacco Farm Subdivision remains.





Central New Mexico’s Rio Grande is beginning to dry

The Duranes ditch, dry this morning (June 6, 2022)

Sometime last weekend (June 4-5, 2022), the Rio Grande south of Socorro, New Mexico, began drying. By this morning (Monday June 6) river managers reported 20+ miles of drying. The gage north of the 380 bridge at San Antonio dropped to zero today.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which normally gets the largest share of our drinking water from the Rio Grande (supplemented with imported Colorado River water via the San Juan-Chama Project), will likely be shutting down its river diversions within the next week to ten days, switching entirely to groundwater through late summer or fall. Which means my tap will still run, and I’ll still be able to water my lush suburban oasis cactus.

Flows on the Rio Grande through Albuquerque right now are the lowest since 1977, which was a crazy bad water year here. Absent a good summer monsoon (which bailed us out last year), we’re expecting the Rio Grande to dry in the Albuquerque stretch this year. As I understand it, this would be the first time we have seen that since 1983, though historically it has happened with some frequency in the past.

But it’s never happened since I’ve been here. (I hope readers will forgive a post now and then as I bear witness to my river going dry.)

Folks who depend on surface water for irrigating their yards, horse pastures, and the like are likely to see dry ditches like the one you see above – the Duranes, which was dry today when I rode through the neighborhood on my morning bike ride.

Domestic wells on the valley floor

Folks with domestic wells to water their yards on the valley floor – and there are a lot of them, especially in the more affluent neighborhoods – should be OK. (Forgive my modest cartographic skills, the red push pins are locations with a domestic well permit, allowing them to pump from the shallow aquifer to water their yards.)

The endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow isn’t doing well at all this year. Surveys have found almost no eggs, suggesting spawning barely happened this spring.

One of the things I’ll be watching this year is the health of our bosque, the cottonwood gallery forest that lines the river. The trees are phreatophytes, which means they stick their roots down into the water table to drink directly. Even as the river dries, they’re still able to tap into the shallow aquifer, and we’ve seen them do well in recent years even as the surface manifestation of the river dries. It’s almost like under a nature-drive doctrine of prior appropriation, the trees are the senior users on the system. They’ll continue to take their cut.

This morning, out on the river just south of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue Bridge (Route 66), I saw this guy with two very old dogs slowly but happily splashing. When the flows get low like this, you see that a lot. So I guess there’s that.

Happy dogs, splashing in a river


A hundred years ago in Colorado River Compact negotiations: the Supreme Court Breaks the logjam

By Eric Kuhn and John Fleck

With a single statement, the United States Supreme Court changed the direction and tone of the compact negotiations:

[T]he waters of an innavigable stream rising in one state and flowing into a state adjoining may not be disposed of by the upper state as she may choose, regardless of the harm that may ensue to the lower state and her citizens.

In a unanimous ruling, on June 5, 1922, the court issued its decision in Wyoming v. Colorado, ruling that Colorado could not develop waters of the Laramie River in a manner that ignored and injured downstream senior appropriators in Wyoming.

Salt Lake Tribune, June 8, 1922

The decision, and its clear implications for the development of the Colorado River, echoed around the West. “State Lines on Colorado River Are Wiped Out”, blared a front page headline in the Salt Lake Tribune, adding “Federal Officials Say California is Already Owner of Stream’s Summer Use.”

This was the risk that states in the river’s upper basin had long feared – that the doctrine of prior appropriation, used by the states within their own borders, might be determined to apply across state lines. Nervously, they all eyed California.

The Laramie, the river at the center of the court’s ruling, has its headwaters in the Northern Front Range Mountains about 40 miles west of Ft. Collins. From there it flows 280 miles north into Wyoming, reaching  the North Platte River near Ft. Laramie, WY. Wyoming farmers and ranchers began using the river for irrigation purpose in the 1880s and 1890s. Within Colorado there is little irrigable land along the river’s path, but its elevation just happens to be about 225 feet higher than the Cache La Poudre River where the two rivers are a little more than two miles apart. Thus, in 1909 two Colorado water companies, including the North Poudre Irrigation District, a client of Colorado’s Delph Carpenter, began construction of an 11,500 foot tunnel that would divert 800 cfs (essentially the entire river in low flow years) from the Laramie River into the already fully developed Poudre. In 1911 the State of Wyoming filed suit against Colorado to protect its existing irrigators.

Over the course of the eleven-year case, the Supreme Court held three oral hearings, the last in January 1921, only weeks before the Colorado River Commission first met. Wyoming’s basic argument was that Colorado’s proposed project would cause great damage and injury to its citizens who were already using the river for irrigation. Colorado’s basic argument was that it had a sovereign right to take and use any water within its boundaries without regard to the rights of states or individuals outside of Colorado. Both states used prior appropriation, but details of how the doctrine was administered were quite different. In Colorado water rights were adjudicated by the local district court. In Wyoming they were granted by a state Board of Control.

The opinion, written by Justice William Van Devanter, determined that since both states used prior appropriation, this doctrine would set the rule for the equitable interstate division of water on the Laramie River. The effect of the opinion was that to protect downstream senior appropriators in Wyoming, the Colorado project would be limited to an annual diversion of 15,500 acre-feet per year, about 20% of the original plan. The opinion was not a complete loss for Colorado. Wyoming had challenged the legality of the Colorado’s project because it was a transbasin diversion. The court found that there was nothing illegal with projects that move water.

As soon as the opinion was released, Colorado River Compact Commission Secretary Clarence Stetson sent copies of the opinion to the commissioners along with a six-point summary. For Colorado’s Carpenter, the loss was probably not a great surprise, but it was nonetheless a bitter defeat. He told his upper river colleagues that the decision left them badly exposed.

For the compact negotiations, the court decision required Carpenter to change his basic strategy. Up to this point, he and Utah’s Caldwell had held firm for a compact based on the concept that water projects in the Lower Basin would never interfere with water uses in the Upper Basin. The decision coupled with building public pressure for Congressional approval of a large storage reservoir to control floods, regulate the river, and produce much needed hydroelectric power meant that it was now time for Carpenter to propose a more practical alternative.  He turned his attention to a concept proposed by Reclamation Service Director Arthur Powell Davis at the Los Angeles field hearing – a compact based on dividing the use of the river’s waters between two basins.

Stetson’s goal was to get the Commission back together in August. Hoover had asked New Mexico Governor Merritt Mechem for a recommendation on where they might meet in relative seclusion. Mechem found such a place, but finding a date that would work for Hoover and the other commissioners would push the meeting date out to November – stay tune.