The Colorado River Compact Hasn’t Aged Well

By George Sibley

The Colorado River Compact turns 100 this year, but any celebration is damped down by the drying-up of the big reservoirs it enabled. The Bureau of Reclamation’s “first-ever” shortage declaration on the river acknowledges officially what we’ve known for years: the Compact and all the measures augmenting it, collectively known as The Law of the River, have not prevented the river’s over-development.

Nearly every pronouncement from the water establishment about the centennial of the Colorado River Compact calls it the “foundation,” “the cornerstone” of the Law of the River – as though before the Compact was adopted, the river was lawless.

It wasn’t. The real foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriation doctrine that all seven river basin states embraced from their start, an evolving body of common law foundational to all water development in the arid American West.

There is much to appreciate in the appropriation doctrine. It allows water to be claimed only by those who are actually putting it to beneficial use, thus precluding speculation. It protects existing downstream users from having their supply dried up by new upstream users. It has shown flexibility in incorporating new uses.

But the appropriation doctrine also evolved as a powerful engine for growth. Its “first in time, first in right” promise of perpetual secure use rewards those who get to the water first.

Judicial decisions then increased its potential for spurring growth. The abstract “right to use water” came to be a property right that could be bought and sold like an automobile, and water whose use was so purchased could then be moved anywhere – along with its seniority. This enabled cities and other large entities with concentrated economic power to buy and move water far from its origin, including water they were not yet ready to use, which clashed with the appropriation doctrine’s anti-speculation intent.

The Colorado River Compact commission came together 100 years ago to impose some control on that growth engine. The seven Basin states had finally acknowledged that they would have to honor each other’s prior appropriations, and they knew that could precipitate a chaotic seven-state horse race, with each state trying to appropriate as much water as possible as quickly as possible.

Their initial strategy was to prevent that by determining what each state could “equitably” use. That failed because the cumulative sum of what they each believed they deserved added up to considerably more than the river’s average flow.

Finally, they just divided the seven-state horserace into three-state and four-state horse races, details to be worked out later, and that became the essence of the Compact. It wasn’t quite what they had set out to do, but it satisfied the federal government enough to allow Reclamation’s eager beavers to begin developing the river’s mainstem.

The Compact and subsequent laws, agreements, contracts and other measures we know as The Law of the River impose public priorities on the Upper and Lower Basins, limit water for California, designate water for Mexico, add recreation as a beneficial use, incorporate environmental restrictions, limit California again, construct shell games with reservoirs, et cetera.

But a good question for evaluating the Compact and the Law of the River today is this: Would the situation on the Colorado River today have been any worse, or different, had there been no Colorado River Compact and its augmenting “Law of the River”?

Given that the desert empire watered by the Colorado River continues to grow virtually unchecked, with 50 to 80 percent more growth anticipated by mid-century, even as the water supply shrinks four to five percent for every degree of temperature increase, it may be time to stop trying to construct control systems around the growth engine, and look into the engine itself.

This is, of course, something no one wants to touch. But what can else be done when an appropriation doctrine has nothing left to appropriate and the growth it enables has become dollar-driven and spiraling out of control?

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues. He writes extensively about the Colorado River.

The public launch ramp at Antelope Point, late March, 2021

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/13/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/13/2022 The Landdesk Durango co
06/14/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
06/14/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
06/14/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
06/14/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
06/14/2022 Big Pivots Denver CO
06/14/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
06/14/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
06/14/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
06/15/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/15/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
06/16/2022 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
06/16/2022 Gunnison Times Gunnison CO
06/16/2022 Rio Blanco Herald Times Meeker CO
06/16/2022 Canyon Echo Bluff UT
06/16/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
06/16/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
06/17/2022 Big Horn County News Hardin MT
06/17/2022 Wyofile WY
06/17/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
06/19/2022 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
06/21/2022 Colorado Springs Tribune Colorado Springs CO
06/26/2022 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
06/26/2022 Missoulian Missoula Montana
07/01/2022 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The #ColoradoRiver compact hasn’t aged well — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification – Coyote Gulch
1 year ago

[…] the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (George […]

Paula Kauffman
1 year ago

To: George Sibley

Dear George, thank you for today’s article on the Colorado River compact citing some of its many problems.

I’m trying to locate an article from the Denver Post that I read within the past 6 or 8 weeks on how the Lower Basin states are developing high tech measures that will provide sufficient water for all future needs. After reading it, I thought, “Oh good; now I don’t have to worry about the Colorado River any longer.”

I wonder if you remember it and would know how I could find it? I’ve tried google and asked the library for help, both to no avail.

Thanks very much,
Paula Kauffman, interested citizen

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Once a week you’ll receive an email with a link to our weekly column along with profiles of our writers, beside quirky photos submitted from folks like you. Don’t worry we won’t sell our list or bombard you with daily mail.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x