A lack of curiosity about the Colorado River’s flow: 100 years ago in Compact negotiations

By Eric Kuhn and John Fleck

Col. James Scrugham, Nevada’s representative to the Colorado River Compact negotiations

As the Colorado River Compact’s negotiators got down to work a century ago, their lack of curiosity about how much water the river might be able to provide began to emerge.

Colorado’s Delph Carpenter understood that he represented the interests of a headwaters state. Four major rivers, including the Colorado, originated in the high mountains and table mesas of his state. All its rivers flowed out. Colorado had all the physical water it needed; Carpenter needed to avoid legal claims by downstream states before future Coloradoans could use their share of the water. From Carpenter’s perspective there was a much simpler approach to protecting Colorado’s interests than apportioning water among seven sovereign states based on irrigable acres, as was being initially discussed.

Q: How much water do we need? A: A lot.

After taking Sunday off, the Colorado River Commission met twice on Monday, January 30th. In the morning session, the water requirements committee reported back to the Commission. The fundamental flaw with the Hoover/Davis apportionment concept surfaced almost immediately. The committee presented two different sets of estimated irrigable acres for each state, one made by the Reclamation Service and the other made by the states. The states’ estimated total was much larger, especially in the upper river states. With optimistic hydrology and using the Reclamation Service acreage data there might have been enough water to meet the needs of the seven states and Mexico (at this point in the negotiations, although Mexico was not invited to the meetings, its water needs were being considered as if it were a state), using the states acreage data, there was nowhere near enough water.  While there were only minor differences on the data for existing acres under irrigation, the Reclamation Service estimate of potentially new irrigable acres in the four upper river states was 2,500,000 acres. The states’ estimate was 4,805,000 acres, almost twice as much. Although the differences were much smaller, there were problems with the lower river data as well. The Reclamation Service had no new data for Nevada, a state that would never have much irrigation and subsequently end up with a very small piece of the river.

Despite the problems, five of the seven state commissioners, including New Mexico’s Steven Davis and Wyoming’s Frank Emerson, tried to find a way forward to a compact based on irrigable acreage. Delph Carpenter and R.E. Caldwell of Utah would not budge. Hoover even asked Steven Davis to meet with Carpenter to break the impasse. He failed; Carpenter had a fundamentally different approach in mind.

But how much water does the river actually have?

Lost in the debate over future water requirements was the report of the water availability committee. There is little discussion of the committee’s report in the minutes of the 6th meeting. There is a simple statement that the amount of water is assumed to be 17.3 million acre-feet annually, the numeric average of the Yuma gage from 1903 -1920 uncorrected for the reality that in 1903 there was far less upstream development than there was in 1920. This lack of curiosity over the water supply data would be a consistent theme for the remainder of the negotiations.

Carpenter’s initial gambit, and Scrugham’s compromise

At the 7th and final commission meeting in Washington, D.C. Carpenter presented his proposal for a compact. Carpenter proposed that the lower river states allow the upper river states to consume water without any interference whatsoever from the lower river states (note; this was before the basin was split into Upper and Lower Basins and these terms were used). His suggested language “the construction of any and all reservoirs and other works upon the lower river shall in no matter arrest or interfere with the subsequent development … of the upper states.” Carpenter’s logic was that because of the climate and topography in the upper river, water use above the great canyons in Northern Arizona presented little or no risk to the lower river. Irrigators in the high country had a short growing season and most water diverted to their fields would end up back in the river as return flows. The lower river commissioners countered that without some reasonable limitation on uses on the upper river, they would be unable to finance their projects. In a constructive role he would play throughout the negotiations, Nevada’s Colonel Scrugham suggested a compromise. He proposed that the lower river would not interfere with the upper river for a limited period, say 20 years. Carpenter rejected the compromise, unsure how long it would take for the upper river to develop additional water.

Although Carpenter’s proposal was rejected by the lower river commissioners, his logic was prescient.  During the debate over his compact proposal, Carpenter quickly realized that he’d fumbled the issue of out-of-basin exports. Recognizing that his logic didn’t work for exports which were 100% consumptive, Carpenter signaled that he would accept a reasonable limit on exports.  In Silver Fox of the Rockies, historian Daniel Tyler suggested Carpenter would have been willing to accept a 500,000 – 600,000 acre-feet per year limitation. Today exports, or “transmountain diversions”, as we now call them, are approaching a million acre-feet per year with more being planned. In contrast, agricultural uses today in the Upper Basin are far less than even the cautious estimates by Arthur Powell Davis. The estimated consumptive use by Upper Basin agriculture in 1922 was 2.2 million acre-feet per year, today it’s about 2.8 million acre-feet, a very modest increase over a hundred years. Arguably, the Lower Basin would have more water today had they accepted Carpenter’s compact proposal.

Unable to agree on two different compact proposals, the January 1922 round of compact negotiations ended on a dark note. In Water and the West, Norris Hundley titled his chapter on this phase of the negotiations as “Stalemate.” After more discussion and pep-talks by Hoover, Carpenter, and Utah’s Caldwell, the Commission agreed to hold field hearings beginning in March then get back together for another round of negotiations.

Stay tuned for a report on the field hearings.

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