40 million people, one river, and a cell phone… down Rio Colorado

| January 1, 2020 | 1 Comment

NOVEMBER, 1922, Santa Fe, New Mexico; debating the future allocation of the water of the Colorado River.

Besuited and bow-tied, men from seven Western states met on Nov. 9, 1922 at Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M., to forge an agreement for the allocation of water from the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River  — the lifeblood of the arid West.

The Colorado River Compact divides the river basin into two — the Upper (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), and the Lower (Nevada, Arizona, and California), and the document apportions the amount of river water allowed each state. The Compact is the founding document of the bewildering assemblage of complex compacts, federal laws, court decisions, decrees, contracts, and international treaties collectively known as the Law of the River.

Hit the road

“New Yorker” contributor David Owen has written a lively and readable account, “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River” (2017), which will make you want to weep with pity at the folly of human nature. It might also give you the desire to hit the road for the state of Colorado to see the mouth of this magnificent river for yourself.

How does California fit into the Colorado River Basin? In fact, it was booming California a century ago that caused the other (sparsely populated) Western states to peer over its borders: Just how much of the Colorado’s water was that golden state soaking up in its exploding cities and spreading agricultural fields?

The answer is so complex it can’t be tackled here — even if I had a gift for numbers. The Colorado River serves 40 million people now, and it irrigates 90 percent of the nation’s winter vegetable production. Lifeblood indeed. (Yet the Colorado River Compact allocations were based on river flows that rarely if ever existed again; 1922 was a particularly wet year.)

BOOK shows folly of human nature.

Future in the West

Owen’s book is a mix of history, science, travel, sorrow and greed, and the book is an unsparing construct of where our future in the West is headed.

But surely some people had fun on the Titanic that last night, and I had moments of amusement reading Owen’s book. It’s easy to trash extravagant water use, especially in Las Vegas, but in fact if the water pumped into the air by those huge fountains at the Bellagio hotel and casino were instead sprayed into Lake Mead, the surface of the lake would rise by less than 100th of an inch, Owen writes. “[B]ut worrying that the Bellagio is killing Lake Mead, or even imperiling the natural aquifer underlying Las Vegas, is like believing that unplugging your cell phone will reverse global warming.”

Patricia Mulroy is one of the nation’s most influential water experts. Owens quotes her on the ongoing tussle about water use among the Compact’s states: “We may be citizens of a community, and a state, and a country, but we are also citizens of a basin. What happens in Denver matters in L.A. What happens in Phoenix matters in Salt Lake. It’s a web, and if you cut one strand, the whole thing begins to unravel. If you think there can be a winner in something like that, you are nuts. Either we all win, or we all lose. And we certainly don’t have time to go to court.”

But in a “Denver Post” article last August, Bruce Finley reports on efforts afoot to attempt to modify the pact as the region’s aridity increases and Denver grows exponentially. “An enshrined legal right of California and the Lower Basin states to demand more of the Colorado River water could imperil half of Denver’s water supply,” Finley writes.

So you see the complications. As for me, I am shutting down the cell phone for good. Honest. Right now. Happy New Year.

By Paula Panich

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Category: Entertainment

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  1. Cornelus N Breedyk says:

    Always interested in water, I am in AZ moved here from southeast NM where water is gold.

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