Revisiting the Colorado River Compact: Time for a Change?

43 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2008

See all articles by Robert W. Adler

Robert W. Adler

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law


Since 1922, the Colorado River Compact has served as the fundamental underpinning of the Law of the River for the seven states and many other water users and other interested parties in the Colorado River Basin. A vast body of other law (including other interstate compacts, international treaties, federal and state statutes, regulations, judicial decisions, administrative policies, contracts, and other documents) is grounded in the compact. Moreover, both governmental and private parties have relied extensively on the legal stability provided by the compact and other aspects of the Law of the River to support a wide range of economic investments, including one of the world's most intensive systems of dams, diversions, canals, levees, and other structures designed to manage water resources in the basin. That suggests caution in proposing major changes to the compact. For a large number of reasons, however, mistakes made when the compact was written, and changed circumstances since that time, suggest that a fundamental reconsideration of the compact may be appropriate. Those include the following factors: (1) the basin states used an inadequate hydrologic record when they negotiated the compact, and seriously underestimated the average amount of water available in the basin; (2) according to recent modeling predictions, global warming may further reduce available basin water supplies; (3) the original compact negotiations paid insufficient attention to water needs of Indian Tribes and Mexico; (4) the compact did not address instream environmental needs, reflected in a series of later federal statutes and other new principles of environmental law; (5) regional growth patterns have shifted significantly since 1922; and (6) all of those factors will place an increasing strain on the manner in which the compact operates as the upper basin states seek to use their full compact entitlements over the next several decades. All of those factors suggest that the basin states and other interested parties would be better served by anticipating the need to reconsider the Colorado River Compact, rather than waiting for a likely crisis sometime in the near future.

Keywords: Colorado River, Colorado River Compact, Colorado River Basin, interstate compacts, water resources, water supplies, climate change, global warming, hydrology, Bureau of Reclamation

Suggested Citation

Adler, Robert W., Revisiting the Colorado River Compact: Time for a Change?. Journal of Land, Resource and Environmental Law, Forthcoming, U of Utah Legal Studies Paper No. 08-01, Available at SSRN:

Robert W. Adler (Contact Author)

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

332 S. 1400 East Room 101
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States

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