Western U.S.

Whisky Is for Drinking, Water Is for Fighting

Poojan Thakrar, MJLST Staffer

The American Southwest often lives in our imagination as an arid environment with tumbleweeds strewn about. This hasn’t been truer in centuries, as the Colorado River is facing its worst drought in 1200 years, in large part because of climate change.[1] The Colorado River is the region’s most important river, providing drinking water to about 40 million people.[2] In June, the federal government gave the seven states[3] that rely on the water two months to draft a water conservation agreement or risk federal intervention. The states blew past that deadline and the DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation imposed cuts to water usage as high as 21%.[4]

The History of the Modern Colorado River Allocation System

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact allocated an annual amount of 15 million acre-feet (maf) evenly between the Upper and Lower Basin states.[5] One acre-foot represents the volume of water that covers one acre in one foot of water and is about the amount of water that a family of four uses annually.[6] However, relying on 15 maf was already problematic; data from the past three centuries showed that the Colorado River has average flows of 13.5 maf, with some years as low as 4.4 maf.[7] 

Moreover, Arizona refused to sign this compact, arguing that water should be allocated amongst individual states instead of between river basins.[8] Tensions flared in 1935 as Arizona moved National Guard troops to the California border in protest of a new dam.[9] Arizona finally ratified the compact in 1944, but the disagreements were far from over.[10] 

Arizona also brought a case to the Supreme Court for a related dispute, asking the Supreme Court to allocate how each basin splits water according to the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928.[11] Originally filed in 1952, Arizona v. California was not resolved until a Supreme Court opinion in 1963.[12] In the end, the Supreme Court accepted the recommendations of a court-appointed Special Master, whose findings California disagreed with. Of the 7.5 maf allocated to the Lower River Basin, 4.4 maf was allocated to California, 2.8 maf to Arizona and 0.3 to Nevada.[13] The court affirmed each state’s use of their own tributary waters, which Arizona argued for.[14] The case also affirmed the Secretary of the Interior’s authority under the Boulder Canyon Project Act to allocate water amongst the states irrespective of their agreement to a compact.[15] Ultimately, this was a victory for Arizona. 

Colorado River water use has been less contentious since Arizona v. California. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico signed a contract to divide their 7.5 maf amongst themselves without the need for federal intervention.[16] However, because of comparatively less development in these Upper Basin states, they collectively only use 4.4 maf of their allocated 7.5 maf.[17] California has historically enjoyed the excess and has often historically surpassed its own allocation.[18]

Modern Water Allocation

Until this year, the seven Colorado River states have relied on voluntary agreements and cutbacks to manage water allocation. For example, in 2007, the states agreed to rules which decreased the amount of water that can be drawn from reservoirs when levels are low.[19] In 2019, they agreed to Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) in the face of waning reservoir levels.[20] It was under this new DCP that the Bureau of Reclamation first announced a drought in August of 2021.[21] Later that December, the Lower Basin states were able to come to an agreement regarding the drought declaration to keep more water in Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado.[22]

However, the December 2021 cutbacks were presumably not enough. In June of 2022, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton testified in front of the Senate Energy Committee about the dire situation on the Colorado.[23] She testified that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both reservoirs on the Colorado, cannot sustain the current level of water deliveries.[24] Commissioner Tounton gave the seven states 60 days to agree how to conserve 2 to 4 maf.[25] 

Underlying this recent situation is the megadrought that the western United States has suffered since 2000.[26] The last 20 years have been the driest two decades in the past 1200 years.[27] The Colorado River states have become remarkably adept at conserving water in that time. For example, the Las Vegas basin’s population has grown by 750,000 in the past 20 years, but its water usage is down 26%.[28] Earlier this year, Los Angeles banned lawn watering to only one day a week, much to the chagrin of Southern California’s most famous residents.[29] 

Commissioner Tounton’s 60 day deadline came and went without an agreement.[30] During a speech on August 15th of this year, Commissioner Tounton mandated that the seven states have to cut their water usage by 1 maf, roughly the amount of water usage of four million people.[31] However, the cuts were not proportioned equally. Arizona was mandated to cut its water by 21% because of the old water agreements, while California was not required to make any.[32]

More recently on October 5th, several California water districts volunteered cuts of almost one-tenth of their total allocation.[33] California conditioned these cuts upon other states agreeing to similar reductions, as well as on incentives from the federal government.[34] California’s cuts are significant, representing roughly 0.4 maf of the 1 maf that Commissioner Tounton asked states to conserve in her August 15th statement.[35] This represents a bold, good-faith move considering California was not mandated to make any. However, there is no doubt that these ad hoc negotiations are unsustainable. As the drought continues, Colorado River water policy will have implications on how food is grown and where people live. The 40 million people that live in the American Southwest may see their day-to-day lives affected if a solution is not crafted. Ultimately, this situation is far from over as states are forced to come to grips with a new water and climate reality.


[1] The Journal, The Fight Over Water In The West, Wall Street Journal, at 00:50 (Aug. 23, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[2] Luke Runyon, 7 states and federal government lack direction on cutbacks from the Colorado River, NPR (Aug. 27, 2022, 5:00 AM) https://www.npr.org/2022/08/27/1119550028/7-states-and-federal-government-lack-direction-on-cutbacks-from-the-colorado-riv.

[3] Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico are considered Upper Basin states and California, Arizona and Nevada are the Lower Basin states.

[4] The Journal, supra note 1, at 12:30.

[5] Joe Gelt, Sharing Colorado River Water: History, Public Policy and the Colorado River Compact, The University of Arizona (Aug. 1997), https://wrrc.arizona.edu/publications/arroyo-newsletter/sharing-colorado-river-water-history-public-policy-and-colorado-river.

[6] The Journal, supra note 1, at 8:08.

[7] Gelt, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Nancy Vogel, Legislation fixes borders wandering river created; Governors of Arizona, California sign bills to get back land the Colorado shifted to the wrong state, Contra Costa Times, Sept. 13, 2002.

[10] Gelt, supra note 5.

[11]  Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

[12] Supreme Court Clears the Way for the Central Arizona Project, Bureau of Reclamation https://www.usbr.gov/lc/phoenix/AZ100/1960/supreme_court_AZ_vs_CA.html.

[13] Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 565, 83 S. Ct. 1468, 1480 (1963).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Gelt, supra note 5.

[17] Heather Sackett, Water managers set to talk about how to divide Colorado River, Colorado Times (Dec. 13, 2021) https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/water-managers-set-to-talk-about-how-to-divide-colorado-river.

[18] Gelt, supra note 5.

[19] Lower Colorado River States Reach Agreement to Reduce Water Use, Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (Feb. 4, 2022) https://rnrf.org/2022/02/lower-colorado-river-states-reach-agreement-to-reduce-water-use/.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Marianne Goodland, Reclamation official tells Colorado River states to conserve up to 4 million acre-feet of water, Colorado Politics(June 15, 2020) https://www.coloradopolitics.com/energy-and-environment/reclamation-official-tells-colorado-river-states-to-conserve-up-to-4-million-acre-feet-of/article_376a907a-ece6-11ec-b0ba-6b2e72447497.html.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Ben Adler, ‘Moment of reckoning:’ Federal official warns of Colorado River water supply cuts, Yahoo News (June 15, 2020) https://news.yahoo.com/moment-of-reckoning-federal-official-warns-of-colorado-river-water-supply-cuts-171955277.html.

[27] Id.

[28] The Journal, supra note 1, at 5:50.

[29] Id. at 6:10.

[30] Id. at 8:55.

[31] Id. at 10:05.

[32] Id.

[33] Marketplace, Why women have been left behind in the job recovery, American Public Media, at 11:35 (Oct. 6, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[34] Id.

[35] Ian James, More water restrictions likely as California pledges to cut use of Colorado River supply, L.A. Times, (Oct. 6, 2022) https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-06/southern-california-faces-new-water-restrictions-next-year.