Managing the Colorado River to use less, rather than take more

In the summer of 1931, as the Bureau of Reclamation was launching work on Hoover Dam, flows on the Colorado River dropped to what, at the time, were low flows unprecedented in the few decades’ records on the river. In retrospect it should have been a clue that there was not going to reliably be enough water in the Colorado River to meet the water supply numbers locked into law via the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928

Digging through archives yesterday afternoon for The New Project, I ran across this wonderful headline from the New York Times:

New York Times, Dec. 4, 1932

It sits atop a 1932 New York Times letter to the editor from M.J. Dowd, Chief Engineer of the Imperial Irrigation District, which even then I’m pretty sure was the largest user of Colorado River water. Down and his Imperial Valley community really wanted Hoover Dam – to protect from “the flood menace” (“menace” was a common word at the time to describe the river we all know and love).


With Lake Mead now hovering at low levels not seen since its first filling, shortly after Dowd’s optimistic missive, it is perhaps time for a rethinking of his confident premise.

Which, as Eric Kuhn points out in this piece by Luke Runyon on Colorado River “drought contingency planning”, seems to be what is happening:

Kuhn says the Drought Contingency Plan negotiations mark a change in how even the staunchest water managers, often criticized for a narrow focus on claiming as much water as possible and storing it in reservoirs, think about the Colorado River. In the past, he says, conversations were about who would claim the next drop of the river’s water.

“Now we’re talking about when we cut back, which we will probably have to, who’s going to take those cutbacks?” Kuhn says.

At the risk of putting words in Eric’s mouth (disclosure: We’re in the midst of writing a book together, so we’re quite literally in the midst of putting words in one another’s mouths, so to speak.) I think he’d agree that the pivot from conversations about claiming the next drop to talk about how to cut back have been underway since the 1990s. This stuff takes time, but as Eric points out, the current shape of the Drought Contingency Plan suggests most everyone (not all of everyone, knowing side eye glance at Utah) is on board.