The Law of the River vs the Needs of the People


The laws governing Colorado River water are dangerously ancient and convoluted. The Imperial Valley of California has water rights so old they trump everyone else and thus get 20% of all Colorado River water. Thus, in our times of increasing drought, Arizona could have all its Colorado River water cut off while California wouldn’t lose a drop. That is the Law of the River, the byzantine set of laws and rules that determines who gets how much Colorado River water. It is 91 years old and archaic. Everyone know it must change.

I’m sure you’ve heard about how cranky and heavily-armed Arizonans are. Imagine how cranky they’d be if their water stopped flowing while California was flooding rice paddies with Colorado River water that used to go to them. Why Sheriff Joe would probably deputize everyone in the state, they’d seize control of the river in Arizona, stop the flow, and California and Nevada could go suck eggs.

I’m only half joking here…

Brad Udall, head of the University of Colorado law school’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment, says in such situations, water law becomes irrelevant. Self-professed water law junkie John Fleck heard him speak recently.

Udall said in essence, that water law doesn’t matter. OK, that’s a rhetorical overstatement of a nuanced point. What Udall was really saying is that there’s a world inhabited by water law junkies like me that accepts the reality that, for example, Arizona’s junior rights mean its Central Arizona project, which represents half of its Colorado River entitlement and delivers water to Phoenix and Tucson, gets cut off completely before California loses a drop. And then there’s “the reality of the public” where people, faced with such a situation, are going to say, in essence, “WTF?” (my initialism, not Brad’s)

Udall had a slide in his talk quoting Mike King, head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources: “I don’t care what you think about the Law of the River, we are not going to dry up a city of 2m people.” And even if/when Las Vegas gets its “third straw” built to protect its diversions at low lake levels, “the reality of the public” is not likely to tolerate drying up a lake that 8 million people enjoy every year.

It means, as I suggested above, that Udall thinks folks won’t tolerate a situation in which Arizona loses all its CAP water while California continues to take a full allotment.

Udall says big ag in California will then have to learn to share and cut back regardless of legal claims on the water.

Here’s the key point: the solutions involve people who have no idea about all the “Law of the River’s” legal niceties: they’re going to want the water distributed in a way that make sense to them.

This will happen peacefully or otherwise. So let’s plan ahead now and make sure it happens peacefully.


  1. Talk about a broken system! Think this through: when CA agribusinesses lose water, they will irrigate less, probably by cutting back on the amount of cropland irrigated rather than using less per acre. That means less food grown. Which in turn means less food for the rest of the nation. Consider: from strawberries and oranges to spinach and cabbage, much of the nation’s store-bought food comes from CA. Something like 80% of the nation’s broccoli comes from CA. The industrial food system requires scarce desert water to feed the nation. The water shortage won’t affect just CA and the southwest.

    Hopefully, this will turn into yet another nail in the coffin of the industrial food system, and encourage yet more local producers.

    • Yes, it is a totally goofy, unworkable system. As it turns out Imperial valley is using less per acre – and expanding their farm acreage, so the same amount of water is used.

      “Use it or lose it.”

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