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Living Rivers Currents
February 1, 2002

Bishop's Lodge: Return to the Scene of the Crime

The negotiating team prepares to sign the Colorado River Compact, Santa Fe, NM, November 24, 1922
The negotiating team prepares to sign the Colorado River Compact, Santa Fe, NM, November 24, 1922
Water lawyers, politicians, representatives from Indian tribes and environmental interests will be gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico early this month for the 2002 Colorado River Symposium at historic Bishop’s Lodge—site of the 1922 negotiations for the Colorado River Compact. While various management challenges for the once-mighty Colorado will be on the agenda, LIVING RIVERS will be promoting fundamental changes in the Compact itself, to bring Colorado River laws up to date with present concerns.

From the exclusion of Indian nations, Mexico and the environment as equal stakeholders in the river’s water, to apportioning more water to the states than actually exists in the river most years, the Compact’s shortcomings are so significant that one wonders why it was not revisited sooner.

“The Compact was flawed from the beginning,” said University of Kansas environmental historian and western water expert Dr. Donald Worster. “All kinds of laws dating to the 1920s have been reassessed—including Prohibition and civil rights—so why not western water laws?”

But to many, the Compact has acquired sacrosanct status. Added Worster, “An agreement like this is thought by some to have come from the hand of God; there is an enormous cultural resistance, particularly if someone is going to lose some money in the deal.”

Despite such obstacles, attempts have been made over the years to find solutions, and the discussion seems to come back to Santa Fe and the Compact. In 1983 a group gathered at Bishop’s Lodge to debate many of the same issues on the table at this year’s meeting. “The underlying thrust was a revisionist effort,” said University of California, Santa Barbara environmental ethicist Dr. Roderick Nash, a 1983 participant. “Coming together was evidence of dissatisfaction.” Yet despite a list of suggested improvements—including amending the Compact—little has been done to address the fundamental problems.

In addition to environmental problems, serious concerns about representation have been in the forefront of discussions about amending the Compact. Compact negotiators simply ignored the issue of reserved rights for Indian tribes, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1908. Only one reference to Indian rights appears in the document, stating that the agreement does not affect federal obligations to Indian tribes. “Herbert Hoover called that clause the ‘wild Indian article,’” said historian Dr. Norris Hundley of the University of California, Los Angeles, an expert on southwest water history and law. “They didn’t pay any attention to Indian rights.”

Indians today see water that rightfully belongs to their people being delivered to corporate farms and cities hundreds of miles away, while many on the reservation still must haul their drinking water in buckets. Some scholars believe the Navajo Nation alone has rights to several million acre-feet. While some Indian nations have pursued negotiated settlements to obtain water, the usual result has been that the tribes are forced to make significant concessions to obtain water deliveries.

Dr. Helen Ingram, of the University of California, Irvine, presented a paper at the 1983 conference calling for equitable re-allocation of Colorado River water. Today she expresses concern that the momentum for change is hampered by differing strategies within the environmental movement itself. “Some groups think that the best way to protect environmental values is by privatizing water rights and using markets but this won’t work for Indian tribes,” she said. “It’s been an enormous disappointment that environmental groups have walked away from water battles. Before we change the Compact we have to change the environmental movement.”

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