Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Colorado River Compact

After reading a bunch of Wallace Stegner and watching John McCain lose Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado after he said during the campaign that the Colorado River Compact might need to be renegotiated, I decided to read up on the matter. I just finished Norris Hundley's Water and the West: The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West. Normally when I try and think of research ideas I just read the newspaper looking for examples of bad journalism (if there's two of something it's a trend), or I just try and think of arbitrary situations or quirks that lead to natural experiments, from which I could get some sort of easily econometrically identifiable causal estimate or program evaluation. (Title IX causing arbitrary variation in girls' sports participation, catastrophic injury causing arbitrary variation in time a rookie QB rides the bench before starting, etc.) This time I thought I'd pick some large general topic I'm interested in (water in the west) and read the history of it and see if there was any sort of thing economics issue I could address. Nope. Too broad. There are all sorts of interesting "what if" questions that one could ask about the Compact, (What if the amounts agreed upon had been different? What if there had never been a compact?) but that's not really what I do. I suppose there are also other cost-benefit analysis questions that one could ask about dams or other development on the river, but that's not really what I do either. Anyway, about the book itself.

Very briefly, the US Constitution Article 1 Section 10 allows for interstate compacts. Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California all got together and decided how to split up the waters of the Colorado. The Upper Basin (WY, UT, CO, NM) agreed to give 7.5 million acre-feet (that is how much water it takes to fill an acre one foot deep) to the Lower Basin annually (plus, confusingly, another 1 million acre-feet maybe to Arizona, maybe from Arizona's own tributaries). The Upper Basin wanted the compact because everybody knew California was developing the fastest, and water law in the arid west is based on prior appropriation--whoever starts using water from the river for some useful purpose first gets to keep doing it, so people upstream can't make the river go dry. So the Upper Basin could develop in its natural way and not have to worry that when people finally did start living there there wouldn't be any water. California wanted the compact because the federal government was being all sorts of slow about allowing development on the river, and California really wanted a dam on the lower river for electricity and flood control. Nevada wanted a dam too, and Arizona, well, they didn't really want the compact. They wanted to build a canal called the Highline Canal, which would divert a crapload of the water from the Colorado and ship it all the way to Tucson. The canal was the brainchild of George Maxwell, who believed that without the canal the US would get in a war with Asia because Mexico was being colonized by Asians. (Seriously. Read that sentence again.) So Arizona didn't ratify the compact until 1944, 22 years after everybody else signed on, and only after 2 or 3 unsuccessful Supreme Court cases against California (the US Supreme Court is the court of original jurisdiction for inter-state conflicts). Then after a few more years they sued California again, and after 11 years the Supreme Court decided that basically Arizona did get a lot of water, but really, Congress and the Secretary of the Interior could in fact do whatever it wanted with the water, so in some sense the compact doesn't even matter. Also, Native Americans and Mexico need water too. And oh, by the way, there's not nearly enough water in the river as you guys originally thought. And yeh, Arizona's canal did end up getting built. The End.

The first 75 pages are rather forgettable, discussing the first attempts to develop along the river in the Imperial Valley. The rest is actually pretty interesting, but probably only if you're already interested in the relevant subject. I read a 1975 printing, so this book could definitely use an update. A new version is indeed due out this May; I do not know if it will be updated.

Even if you don't read the book (or even the Wikipedia articles I linked to, or even this whole post) you should definitely look at these pictures of a rafting trip down Glen Canyon before they built the dam and consider supporting efforts to restoring a free-flowing river.

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