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Living Rivers Currents
February 1, 2002

Colorado River Compact In the Way of Delta Restoration

Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley--Will he help the Delta?
Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley--Will he help the Delta?
The Colorado River Compact of 1922 was negotiated by the seven basin states without input from Mexico or Indian tribes. When the river flows were parceled out, only about ten percent was allocated to Mexico, a quantity formalized by treaty 22 years later. Mexico currently uses its entire share for agricultural and urban needs. This has had a profound effect on the Colorado River delta. With so little water moving across the border, and Mexico’s growing demand for it, the delta today receives no water.

“It should not be Mexico’s sole responsibility to fix the delta when the US takes so much of the river’s flow from them,” said LIVING RIVERS’ Lisa Force, who is leading efforts to get water users throughout the Colorado to donate one percent of their water to delta restoration. “The delta’s native Cucupá communities, along with all Indian tribes were excluded from this allocation process; it’s time to renegotiate.”

The plight of the delta also illustrates another major flaw in the Compact: no allocation provisions were made for flows and river management strategies to protect the environment. The Compact pre-dated such concerns, but today, critical habitat—from the river’s headwaters to its delta—suffers from lack of water.

While interest in delta restoration grows, and water agencies express interest in assisting, the Compact and other laws governing the Colorado River make such support difficult, if not impossible. Water conserved and left in the river by one agency may be freely diverted by another user downstream. Moreover, if it is proven that a user routinely leaves water in the river, that user’s rights to the water may be lost altogether by not putting the water to “beneficial” use.

LIVING RIVERS has requested on behalf of the Delta Restoration Coalition—a group of 133 organizations representing more than 12 million people—that the Secretary of the Interior examine the Compact and other laws governing the Colorado to identify opportunities to deliver water to the delta. The Secretary, as the arbiter of water allocations in the lower basin, has great discretion to interpret the Law of the River.

As an initial step, reforms should recognize in-stream flows as a beneficial use throughout the basin and across borders. Effective mechanisms are needed to offer water users assurances that conserved water will be protected from appropriation by other users, and allowed to become part of a dedicated, basin-wide system of in-stream flows that would replenish the delta.

In his December 2001 address to the Colorado River Water Users’ Association, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bennett Raley stated that Colorado River delta issues are among his Department’s “top priorities” for the coming year. The Interior Department must join with those seeking new and innovative ways to address today’s pressing environmental and social needs of stakeholders, not continue perpetuating the mistakes of the past.

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Last Update: October 30, 2007

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