March 1985: when everything on the Colorado River changed

Brett Walton had a great bit of business in yesterday’s Circle of Blue story on 2019’s remarkable drop in Colorado River Lower Basin water use:

The last time water consumption from the river was that low was in 1986, the year after an enormous canal in Arizona opened that allowed the state to lay claim to its full Colorado River entitlement.

Which led, over on the twitter, to a discussion involving the LA Times’ Sammy Roth and others about how people were talking, and thinking, about the milestone back in 1985 when the Central Arizona Project first switched on.

As we were working on our book Science Be Dammed, Eric Kuhn and I often turned to newspapers of the day to see what people were saying publicly about the events we were studying, as they were happening. For the 1985 milestone, we turned to the LA Times’ Bill Boyarsky. From Chapter 18 of the book:

With hindsight, it is possible to date the beginning of the twenty-first-century changes on the Colorado River to March of 1985, when Arizona pumped the first water from Lake Havasu into the Central Arizona Project canal. “Now as a trickle but soon as a torrent,” Bill Boyarsky wrote from Phoenix in the Los Angeles Times, “Arizona is finally taking its share of the Colorado River, and the impact will be felt from here to the Pacific beaches.” Boyarsky’s warning was explicit—the surplus water that until then had flowed west to Southern California would now be headed east, toward the Phoenix metro area, which was growing at a rate of more than 75,000 people a year.

In 1985, California took 4.8 million acre feet of main stem water from the Colorado. In 2019, it took 3.9 million acre feet.


  1. Good Heavens: all you guys do at your website is advertise your book. Where is the much needed reporting on what is happening currently? Where are interviews and revelations of engineers with better solutions to the Colorado River’s impending situation? What few items you offer are, essentially, predictable outlooks and phraseology of current office holders who espouse only the groupthink of their professional class. Mostly your website is a mere extension of the status quo unto infinity politically speaking. Dull, and rather pointless too.

  2. re: “In 1985, California took 4.8 million acre feet of main stem water from the Colorado. In 2019, it took 3.9 million acre feet.” Has this led to the increased efforts of MWD to get water from the Delta: pushing the Shasta Dam raise, buying islands for staging areas for a Delta tunnel, etc?

  3. John, it has been a couple days since I watched the YouTube video on the Colorado, Lake Powell and Lake Mead and also since I last spoke with R. Davis from the Bureau of Reclamation. That video I watched was from 2017. I have always been amazed at how the Colorado River has carved and eroded the Grand Canyon and so many other areas down River. Climate change is very real and so is the reduction in water from reduced snowpack, climate change and evaporation. Another amazing point for me is that 7 states use water from the Colorado River and it still flows today and helps those 7 states as well as Mexico. One question I have, is the Colorado in danger of being over-allocated? I have heard that we are still experiencing drought and the snowpack is down 62% from this last Winter. Lake Mead and Lake Powell were below the water line in the video I watched. Where are the levels of water in Lakes Mead and Powell at these days in 2020? Have you ever seen Lake Mead or Lake Powell this low before? What do we need to do to make ends meet this Summer, in 2020? Thanks. Looking forward to hearing from you. Alan S.

  4. Richard Cathcart – Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. One of the neat things about the Internet is that if you do not like the content on a particular web site – if, for example, you find it dull and pointless – you do not have to read it! There are several other web sites to choose from. Or if the content you desire is missing, you can create it yourself, like we do! We even went so far as to write a book filled with the content that we thought was missing, which we found really rewarding.

    But perhaps you’re already doing this and we’ve missed it?

  5. Your website is neither disliked nor avoidable. I want to know what everyone with hard data and different viewpoints is saying on the subject of the Colorado River! So, it is mandatory to review your content just as a simple matter of thorough research. Nothing will be developed that is not based on all viewpoints and all data.
    I bought and avidly read you book, so it is annoying that most the recent content of your website is bits and
    pieces (quotations) extracted from your book are used as play-offs. I have contacted you in the past directly, sent you both e-mails with published science and engineering PDFs. Never answered, not even a courtesy of receipt or a blow-off one-liner. I have a considerable number of freely downloadable article and book PDFs posted at . I suggest you both read the posting from Brazil’s premier online science journal CALIBRE of December 2018. Please, let’s move away from rehashed history and forward into “cure” proposals.

  6. Richard – I’ve devoted the last ten years of my life to writing two books, each of which built an argument about the nature and history of the problems on the Colorado River, the current state of the system and the tools available to address those problems, my (ours, Eric Kuhn and myself in the case of the most recent book) ideas about what success in dealing with the problems might look like, and some of the steps I (we) think would be useful in pursuing such success.

    By themselves books like ours have relatively modest audiences. But they can serve as a platform for spreading the ideas in them to broader audiences through blog posts, op eds, webinars, conference talks, interviews with reporters, lectures to students, ancillary research papers. So I make no apology for repeating, here on the blog, things that were said in the books. That’s the whole point! If you find it “dull, and rather pointless”, as you said, then by all means don’t read the blog. If you find the blog mandatory reading to understand the range of ideas regarding the Colorado River, as you also said, then by all means do read the blog.

    But don’t tell me what to write on my blog. It’s my blog.

  7. WOW. Now you brand me a dictator: “…don’t tell what to write on my blog. It’s my blog”. Your book, while being a useful compilation of thoughts based on recorded history, offers only a static framework so that your blog offers nothing that indicates futurities in regional or global public water-supply technologies. Hence, your blog is far too repetitive–my only complaint rather mildly expressed to you previously–and neglectful of the real-world outside your obviously preferred realm of Academia and Political spheres of influential persons and institutions. I will continue to read your blog, however functionally useless it may be at times. I want to know what these “Stale-ists” are doing almost daily so that others I read (along with myself occasionally) may recognize, and be fully cognizant of, the absolute social, intellectual and news media barriers to progress of this subject (the focus on the Colorado River).

  8. Could this back and forth be taken private? I don’t want to unsubscribe from this blog but don’t want to follow this particular conversation further. Unless there is a third way, e.g. unsubscribing from this thread or ???


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