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Review Colorado River water rights

In this 2003 photo, plumes of water shoot through tubes at Glen Canyon Dam.
In this 2003 photo, plumes of water shoot through tubes at Glen Canyon Dam.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

According to Wikipedia, in 1922, seven Western states agreed to a compact governing the allocation of Colorado River water among those states. In 1928, as part of the Boulder Canyon Project, the current specific allotments were established based on a total flow of 15 million acre feet per year. Upper Basin (expressed in terms of acre feet per year): Colorado, 3.88 million; Utah, 1.73 million; Wyoming, 1.05 million; New Mexico, .84 million. Lower Basin: California, 4.4 million; Arizona, 2.8 million; Nevada, .30 million. As a percentage, this computes to the following: — Upper Basin: Colorado, 51.75 percent; Utah, 23.00 percent; Wyoming, 14.00 percent; New Mexico, 11.25 percent. Lower Basin: California, 58.70 percent; Arizona, 37.30 percent; Nevada, 4.00 percent.

But which of all these seven states is the driest? The answer is Nevada.

How then is it possible that Nevada is allotted only 2 percent of the total Colorado River water? In 1922, the Nevada delegates to the Colorado River Compact negotiations at Bishop's Lodge, near Santa Fe, demonstrated an amazing lack of vision relating to the development of the sparsely populated southern part of their state. They were reported to be eager to please the California delegation, and they were observed imbibing copious amounts of freely-flowing alcoholic beverages.

The total population of Nevada in 1920 was only 77,000 people. Today it is over 2,640,000. Las Vegas had 2,304 people in 1920 — Clark County had 4,859.

Because of the huge population increases in the Las Vegas Valley and because of Nevada's tiny allotment of Colorado River water in nearby Lake Mead, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, or SNWA, is determined to tap the Great Basin aquifers north of Las Vegas and pipe the water south. This, of course, would result in a massive ecological disaster for the Great Basin deserts. Eastern Nevada and western Utah — primary areas of the Great Basin — are desperate to prevent this huge water grab.

What is to be done? Water is a touchy subject in the arid west and always has been. Arizona has never been happy with the Colorado River Compact (even though its tributary rivers to the Colorado were exempted from the contract), and all of the seven states would like very much to have a larger share. But does anyone really doubt that Nevada's share is absolutely ridiculous?

Renegotiating the Colorado River Compact would be fraught with contention, and the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled the agreement to be binding. So what can be done to somehow repair the mind-boggling Nevada aberration? It may depend on the extent to which the true spirit of fair play prevails among the Colorado River Compact states.

Here is a modest proposal: In terms of millions of already allotted acre feet of Colorado River water per year, let the fair-minded citizens of the other states of the compact be appealed upon to mercifully redeem Nevada's folly by simply voting to freely give the following amounts of their allotments to Nevada: Colorado, .10; California, .10; Utah, .05; Arizona, .05; Wyoming, .05. Adding this to Nevada's present .30 would leave the compact's seven states with the following allotments: California, 4.30 million acre feet per year; Colorado, 3.78 million acre feet per year; Arizona, 2.75 million acre feet per year; Utah, 1.68 million acre feet per year; Wyoming, 1.00 million acre feet per year; New Mexico, .84 million acre feet per year; Nevada, .65 million acre feet per year.

Gifting these relatively modest amounts of water to Nevada would represent a type of salvation for both southern Nevada and the Great Basin. In times of drought, the amounts would be reduced proportionately. In times of plenty, the amounts would be increased proportionately.

This proposed adjustment to the Colorado River Compact cries out for priority over every other initiative. Thus the delicate Great Basin aquifers will not be plundered, and a more balanced and orderly growth for the greater American Southwest will be maintained. Surely the good people of California, Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Wyoming can be persuaded to make these modest sacrifices in order to resolve this otherwise intractable crisis.

Mr. Horlacher descends from families who have lived in eastern Nevada and western Utah since the 1920s. He was born in Tooele and raised in eastern Nevada. He now lives in Provo.