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The law dividing the Colorado River turns 100 years old


People in the southwest who depend on the Colorado River are in crisis. There's not enough water to go around. One reason for that took place 100 years ago this month. At the time, the region was growing rapidly with European settlers. One thing was missing - a stable water supply. In addressing that dilemma, people a century ago created an issue for those who live there today. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: The agreement among seven Western states was groundbreaking for its time. A Colorado River Compact solved a problem. The river's flows were extreme, creating dramatic swings from flood to drought. It was unreliable and dangerous.

ERIC KUHN: We needed to control nature.

RUNYON: Eric Kuhn walks on a gravel path above the river in Glenwood Springs, Colo. On this day, the water is turbid and choppy. The river winds its way through town, past hot springs resorts and whitewater outfitters. Kuhn spent his career working for a western Colorado water agency. He also wrote a book about the history of the compact.

KUHN: We needed to figure out a way to make this river from a menace to a natural resource.

RUNYON: At the time, European settlers formed farming communities. They were spurred on by federal incentives. The agreement the state leaders came to guaranteed states a fixed amount of water. Kuhn says the negotiators optimistically overestimated the amount of water in the river. That made the whole process smoother.

KUHN: Everyone agrees that there's enough water to meet all our needs. Dividing it up is going to be very easy. If there's not enough water, then it's going to create complications.

RUNYON: But in the coming decades, demand surpassed the supply. Infrastructure grew. The climate became warmer and drier. There was way less water than the compact promised. Kathy Jacobs is a water policy professor at the University of Arizona.

KATHY JACOBS: We're 100 years later.

RUNYON: Jacobs says at the time the agreement was made, the priority was irrigation for farms.

JACOBS: Obviously, our priorities are different than the priorities of the people who existed at that time.

RUNYON: The negotiators weren't thinking of what a future Phoenix metro area might need or how their decisions would affect the Grand Canyon's ecosystems. Today, the river cannot meet the region's needs. Its reservoirs are at record lows. Heather Tanana is a University of Utah law professor and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She says the compact reflects the way Indigenous people have been excluded.

HEATHER TANANA: And it's sad but not surprising that tribes completely were not part of the river management discussions.

RUNYON: Collectively, tribes hold rights to more than 20% of the river's water. Only recently have the states and the federal government taken seriously calls for a tribal seat at the negotiating table.

TANANA: That's been a shift in the last, really, I think, five years of recognizing tribal interest, their legal rights and beyond that, that tribes can be a part of problem solving.

RUNYON: So with all of its flaws, why would anyone want to keep using the compact? Well, Kevin Wheeler, a river management fellow at the University of Oxford, says tearing it up would be almost impossible. The region is too dependent on it. He says the only way forward is to live with less water. People have no choice but to ignore the compact's fanciful promises.

KEVIN WHEELER: What's often been said is we're not going to get rid of it, but we may have to bend the hell out of it to make it work.

RUNYON: And figure out the best way to bend it before the whole system breaks. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Grand Junction, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.