The Grand Diversion

In the arid Southwest we put a lot of faith into a century-old agreement. Created by skillful lawmakers in 1922, it’s called the Colorado River Compact and it has little bearing on the reality of the river in 2014, or most years as it turns out. The boosters of growth who wrote the 2,000 page document had no inkling that the two decades before 1922 were much wetter than the fossil record. They relied upon a single gauge to calculate the River’s past and future volume. And so the Colorado River Compact charted the future by mandating who could take how much water from the lifeline of the Southwest—and began the process of diverting it dry.

It’s impossible to understand the current state of the river witout looking at these actions of the past. Seven states blithely divided up the river and began planning dams as if the Colorado’s water would spring eternal. The Colorado River Compact became the foundation for legislation—collectively known as the Law of the River—that would extensively store and divert water partly to various industry and cities, but mostly to farms (eventually using 78 percent of the river).

Ecology, let alone science, was overruled when it came to taming the disruptive Colorado River—which was prone to unpredictable floods, reddened moods, and maddening droughts. The Law of the River, along with sorting out rights, would help control this unruly Force of Nature.

Central to this mindset was the prevailing Prior Appropriations Doctrine, defined as “use it or lose it,” which assigned highest priority water rights to the earliest users. It all began with miners who didn’t necessarily own land alongside rivers but were putting the water to what became known as “beneficial use.” The new doctrine first appeared in a Colorado court in 1872, then was adopted by other western states, citing that arid climates could not abide by the old Riparian Doctrine, which actually prevented river diversions that jeopardized downstream users.

Few foresaw that the population served by the Colorado River would grow to 36 million. Today, at a yearly average of 15 million-acre feet—enough water to supply 30 million households—the River is significantly drier than the 1922 estimate of 17.5 million-acre-feet. Add to this dilemma a changing-climate drought that scientists predict will radically curtail the river’s flow in coming decades and the situation looks dire. Still, the potential solutions have scarcely been implemented.

The law of the river

The biggest problem is that a century ago, none of the people making these decisions had any idea how the population of the Southwest would boom. As people began flocking to thirsty cities such as L.A., Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver, the Bureau of Reclamation—charged with managing water throughout the West—went to work throughout the Colorado River Basin. Proclaiming each new gargantuan wedge of concrete as another victory against the tyranny of the unruly Colorado River, the Bureau built over a hundred major dams and over a thousand miles of canals, continuing to slake the thirst of innumerable farms. The hubristic system ignored simple principles of river ecology, including downstream silt transport, or maintenance of water temperatures—both denied by dams. It was simply built to honor the Compact, in turn guided by the complex Law of the River.

Still, for decades, the widely diverted Colorado River allowed stunning population growth for a region estranged from rain clouds. While a few scientists and river experts like the explorer John Wesley Powell had called for sensible growth that relied upon judicious use of available resources, the Water Establishment—referred to as the “water buffalos” by environmentalists—set the standard for the use of the river. It strong-armed its way into building mega dams and consolidating its power base.

Among many well-regulated spigots controlled by the Law of the River was a 1944 treaty with Mexico. Our southern neighbors had no choice but to accept ten percent of the annual Colorado River flow, paving the way for large portions of the Mexican Delta to turn as dry and hard as the concrete slabs holding up thousands of well-plumbed Southwestern U.S. subdivisions. Not so across the border. As most of the world now works double-time to conserve and recycle, present-day water buffalos in the Southwest continue to sprinkle non-native lawns, revere cows (sustained by hay, drinking more river water than any other crop) and cling to outdated principles likely to remain on the books. Unless the West adopts more progressive policies, they will continue to use the river as if it were 1922.

The problem is this increasingly intricate plumbing system—to the chagrin of Earth Firsters everywhere—performed as planned, with the exception of a wet spell in 1983 that nearly popped the Glen Canyon Dam, penultimate cork of the Colorado River. Meanwhile, those who cared about the River, let alone those Mexican communities whose livelihood depended upon tourists and coastal fishing, were devastated.

In 1999, the river stopped its by now occassional flow to the delta (the shut-off began in 1963 when Glen Canyon was completed). This once-lush delta—that used to be prowled by panthers, braved by steamships and swept by several-foot high tidal bores, surfing upstream against the flow of emerald green river channels—died. This coincided with the end of one of the wettest centuries in 1,400 years of fossil record. In addition to dozens of endangered animal species, much of the Native Cocopah (People of the River) culture was lost and the fishing industry in the Sea of Cortez (sustained by shrimp and other seafood dependent upon fresh river water) withered. Sea species dependent upon the river’s flow—including the totoaba (a giant bass) and the vaquita porpoise—were added to the endangered species list. And until the media recently made returning the river to its delta a cause celebre, most Americans either didn’t know or didn’t care that their greatest whitewater river no longer ran to the sea.

A Return in a Minute

Fortunately, in 2012, a minute added to the 1944 International Treaty may demonstrate how to restore the delta, albeit at a modest scale.  Over the next five years, Minute 319 allows for a one-time pulse flow of 105,392 cubic feet of water (0.7 percent of the Colorado River), to be supplemented by a smaller base flow while scientists determine the impact of these environmental water deliveries on habitat. U.S. and Mexican water leaders will come back to the negotiating table to develop a successor agreement, and the lessons learned from this environmental flow demonstration will be among the considerations for future commitments. Government officials and progressives within the Water Establishment, along with an ever-burgeoning coalition of non profits, NGOs and environmentalists, have applauded the move as a showpiece of how diverse Southwest interests could work together for future preservation efforts—offering up new hope for the otherwise development-oriented Law of the River.

When Mexico’s Morales Dam opened its river gates on March 23, 2014, a crowd cheered. Further downstream, the San Luis Rio Colorado community of Mexico spent weeks barbecuing and playing music out on the once dry river banks to celebrate, at long last, the Colorado River running past their town. From here, it flushed a soup of bottles and foam down into the Delta, a Rhode Island sized sprawl of ancient grains washed out of the Rockies and carved from the Grand Canyon. Even if the river can’t be restored to its “PreDambrian” glory, regularly flooding to the sea, regular pulses of water into the mid delta could at least support riparian shrubbery, small forests and habitat for various fauna, including 380 species of birds.

Despite this sanctioned delta soaking, no one is forgetting that the prolonged drought and population growth continues, so the seven-member states are clamoring like never before to stake out their full appropriations under the Colorado River Compact. California, in particular, is suffering its driest conditions in recorded history, so in response, a controversial Senate proposal would refill Lake Mead in order that liquid relief could be pumped to the distant state. Meanwhile beneath the reservoir, the local water authority has spent nearly $2 billion tunneling under Lake Mead as a Hail Mary pass to fill their aqueduct and keep the Vegas taps flowing, since Nevada receives only a fraction of the water sent to California. And while the Rockies are temporarily blessed with a decent snowpack, the Denver growth juggernaut continues to propose new Colorado River diversions and dams.

Where it Belongs

So what is the future? Energy consumptive desalination plants proposed for the California coast would manufacture more fresh water at the cost of manufacturing outrageous carbon footprints. Ideally, Environmental Impact Statements required for newly proposed dams and diversions might uphold the natural balance of the river—while challenged by senior water rights holders protected by the Prior Appropriations Doctrine.

There is also hope to be found in Colorado River Basin states, where water trusts are being established to allow senior water rights holders to donate water back to the river, without losing their future water rights.  If a basin-wide water trust could be established, along with healthier minimum stream flows that would assure the future of the river, America’s most renowned scenic wonder will have a fighting chance.

Most river experts—scientists or engineers—agree that increased conservation measures will benefit the Colorado. This includes large-scale xeriscaping, irrigation reform, discretionary crop planting, reducing huge evaporative losses from reservoirs, and reforming the consumptive water-energy nexus demanded by the fossil fuel extraction. Unlike 1922, politicians and boosters of growth now understand that the region’s livelihood depends upon the river itself: a $26 billion economic engine that supports 234,000 jobs across the Basin in tourism and recreation.

Accorded even a fraction of the resources that went into engineering storage and diversion, ecological protection could create a new future for the Colorado River. If we can find the courage and creativity to begin visionary conservation, and further amend the antiquated Law of the River, we could engineer a lot of water right back into the river where it belongs.

—Jonathan Waterman is the author of 12 books including The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict and Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River.