Crisis on the Colorado River – How Did We Get Here?

Allocations of water as well as the river’s operations are governed by a series of agreements, regulations, interstate compacts, and court decisions collectively referred to as the “Law of the River.” Learn more in this piece written by Nevada lawyer Christine Guerci.

The Colorado River is facing historical drought conditions. The Colorado River serves millions of people in seven states, numerous tribes, sustains wildlife, and produces low-cost electricity through the use of hydroelectric plants. Clark County, Nevada gets about 90 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River. This historic drought threatens that water supply and the production of hydroelectric power. How did we get here?

The Colorado River played a major role in western history and the development of the western states. From the initial discovery by the Spanish in the mid-1500’s until the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the harnessing of the river beginning in 1909, to the Colorado River Compact and the Boulder Canyon Project Act, the Colorado was of critical importance in the settlement of southern Nevada both in terms of water and energy.

Allocations of water as well as the river’s operations are governed by a series of agreements, regulations, interstate compacts, and court decisions collectively referred to as the “Law of the River.” The foundational agreement is the 1922 Colorado River Compact negotiated and signed by the seven basin states – Nevada, California, and Arizona (the “Lower Basin” states) and Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico (the “Upper Basin” states). Each basin was allocated 7.5-million-acre feet (“MAF”), and in 1944, Mexico was allocated 1.5 MAF through an international treaty, totaling 16.5 MAF. An acre foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land one-foot deep.

Those initial allocations made in the 1920’s reflected the agricultural uses of the water and the population levels in the southwest at that time. Since that time, population levels in Arizona and Nevada have exploded – Clark County had 3,284 people living in it in 1900 while current-day estimates are a population of 2.3 million people.

Further, it was assumed that average annual flows on the river would total 16.4 MAF. However, historical annual flows were actually around 14.7 MAF, and between 2000-2020, the average annual flow was around 12.4 MAF. Therefore, the river was over-allocated from the beginning, with the results of that over-allocation being exacerbated by the exponential growth in the southwest and the current drought. The past twenty years have been the driest in the Lower Basin, with eight of the 20 driest years on record having occurred since 2000.

Recognizing that the river was over-allocated and the need for greater stability in the water supply, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, in conjunction with the Basin states, adopted the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. This contained some curtailments of the previous allocations and created the concept of “Intentionally Created Surplus,” where the Lower Basin states could store water, saved through conservation efforts, in Lake Mead, thereby helping to maintain elevation levels.

Following the Interim Guidelines, the United States and Mexico entered into Minute 323 in 2017, which provided for potential cutbacks on water deliveries to Mexico, as well as giving Mexico the ability to store conserved water in Lake Mead. Thereafter, in 2019, after much negotiation, the Basin states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation finalized the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). The Lower Basin DCP requires some potential additional curtailments of water deliveries for Arizona, California, and Nevada at certain trigger points, i.e., when lake elevations drop below a certain targeted amount. The DCP also provides for additional methods to increase voluntary conservation with that conserved water being stored in Lake Mead.

With the continuation of the drought, there is a need to further reduce the use of Colorado River water. The Basin states and the U.S. government are working toward an agreement for further cuts with the goal of stabilizing the water supply.

About this article: This article was originally published in the “Natural Resources” issue of Communiqué, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association, (May 2023). See https://clarkcountybar.org/member-benefits/communique-2023/communique-may-2023/.

About the author

Christine Guerci provides legal representation specializing in economic development and complex transactional problems. She practiced for many years with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office and the City of Henderson.

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