A reminder that the federal government does not use Colorado River water

Count me among those in the Colorado River community who was disappointed last month with the lack of Department of Interior action on its threats should the states not come up with a plan to sufficiently reduce their water use.

But let’s remember the core issue here: the states of the basin, especially the Lower Basin, and especially California and Arizona, are using too much Colorado River water.

The very fact that we’re having this conversation about a need for federal action is a direct result of the fact that California and Arizona have been unwilling to act to save themselves.

As I’ve written before, I believe in the importance of federal threats in spurring Colorado River progress. But let’s remember why they’re needed.

They’re needed because the water users have been unwilling to save themselves from the increasingly frightening results of their own excesses.


  1. Technically the Federal Government does use water from the Colorado River in the lower basin and I’m assuming that some usage also exists in the upper basin. Think on the lines of water being diverted at US Fish and Wildlife preserves and conservation districts.

    Water is also used at the dams as well. However, in very modest amounts. Stating that, maybe you should retitle this post as, ‘We all use the river. Even your Uncle.’

  2. “Arizona using too much Colorado River water? – How is this measured? “Arizona unwilling to. . . ” The folks in Arizona say that is the OTHER states who are unwilling to act. The AZ perspective is that we are already willing to do MORE than our share to address our Colorado River water problems. . .

  3. Important Point about the Federal Government not actually using the Colorado River Water.
    The reason for the 1922 Compact was to make sure and spread the ‘wealth” of the water around to get maximum Economic benefit. Remember Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce at the time.

    The Imperial Irrigation Dist.was using ALL the water that came its way, and had developed an infrastructure to use that water. Other basin states were using minor about of water and so had minor water rights. 1922 compact re-distributed the water rights to the other basin states. The other states came away with more water rights than they had before. That was a big give for California, and it was good for the country at large.

    My guess it the Federal Government will continue to give California wide berth on their water rights because it makes economic and food security sense for the greatest number of people.

  4. Actually, John, the federal government does use Colorado River water, but that water use is counted against the state in which it occurs. In Arizona, for example, federal users include the National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Wildlife Refuges (Havasu, Cibola, Imperial), BLM, US Army and Marine Corps. Granted, these are not large volume uses.

    But let’s not forget that the federal government is also illegally withdrawing–“using”–more than 100,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mead every year to make up for water that bypasses the delivery points specified in the 1944 treaty between the United States and Mexico and is not counted against the U.S. treaty obligation. Since 2000, the federal government has illegally bypassed 2.69 million acre-feet. It has also delivered another 1.76 MAF to Mexico in excess of that country’s scheduled deliveries. That’s nearly 4.5 MAF lost from Lake Mead since 2000 due to the federal government’s failure to operate the system responsibly and in accordance with the law. By telling the states to cut their uses by 2-4 MAF this next year, Interior is effectively demanding that the states immediately make up for all the water Interior has squandered over the past 22 years.

    As to your comment that the states have been unwilling to act, I understand that Arizona put forth a proposal to reduce its water use significantly in 2023, but California has been unwilling to contribute anything to solving the problem. The situation is very similar to that of 1930 when Arizona and California were unable to agree on a lower basin compact. Delph Carpenter commented then that Arizona’s demands were fair, but agreement would be impossible as long as one side was deadlocked due to the demands of “a special community whose people have rather exaggerated ideas of what their portion of the water should be.” (Carpenter letter to Gov. Adams, Feb. 3, 1930) Some things–and attitudes–never change.

  5. killing a river and a vast ecosystem and you want to talk about releasing 100,000af a year (due to what seepage?) extra? IMO the river has an inherent right to exist in some form and what has been done to it is a tragedy that needs to be remedied before any other conversations are allowed to talk about “extra” water for human exploitation.

    granted that we’ll never get a functional random system like what was there before, but at least there should be some kind of river flows and river habitats along the way even if it is only 100cfs at some times and other times it should be more as a variable river is what it was and always likely has been since the continent broke apart and pushed back together and the Rocky Mountains got pushed up and started blocking the clouds.

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