Category Archives: Environmental

Article – Arizona v. California and the Colorado River Compact: Fifty Years Ago, Fifty Years Ahead

The origin of the Colorado River in northern Colorado along the continental divide does not appear to be more than a stream.  The Colorado River supplies much of the western United States with drinking water and energy.

Water rights are a hot topic in the western United States.

After years of bickering and unable to make an agreement between themselves, Congress wrote the Boulder Canyon Project Act of December 21, 1928, each state consented to water rights usage of the Colorado River.   The contract between Arizona, California, Nevada, etc. was meant to be irrevocable.  The contract divided up the 7,500,000 acre-feet of the Colorado River available to the States.

Less than 25 years later, in 1952 Arizona sued California in the United States Supreme Court over how much water each State has a legal right to use out of the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries.  Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963) (it took 10 years to decide because the Supreme Court had to remand the case to a trial court for a finding of fact for water usage, etc., then the case went back to the Supreme Court for a final determination).

“The [Boulder Canyon Project] Act as finally passed did provide such a method, and, as we view it, the method chosen was a complete statutory apportionment intended to put an end to the long-standing dispute over Colorado River waters.” Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 560 (1963).

Water law is really old and complex.  However, these long-standing agreements and court decisions still impact water rights today.

As the southwest grows and water usage soars something will eventually have to give.

Hydrologic conditions in the Colorado River Basin have changed markedly in the fifty-year period since the U.S. Supreme Court announced the seminal Colorado River decision of Arizona v. California in 1963. As projected by the Bureau of Reclamation in its recent Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, this pattern of change is anticipated to persist during the next fifty years. Water demands exceeded supplies on average in the basin for the first time in recorded history over the past decade, and this supply-demand imbalance is forecast to widen between now and 2060, absent changes in the status quo. Rooted in concerns about reliance interests and expectations attached to Colorado River water in the Lower Basin, this Article considers the nuanced relationship between Arizona v. California and the Colorado River Compact as this relationship is implicated by the supply-demand imbalance. We initially provide an overview of the Compact’s prominent role in the Arizona v. California litigation — notwithstanding the majority’s ultimate disregard of it in the final decision. We then consider Arizona v. California’s facilitation of water uses and losses in the Lower Basin over the past several decades and essential parameters put into place by the Compact that bear on future efforts to manage these uses and losses. We conclude by advocating for the formulation of a Lower Basin water budget that is informed by the Compact’s basinwide apportionment scheme as a means for navigating the supply-demand imbalance.

Jason A. Robinson and Lawrence J. MacDonnell, Arizona v. California & the Colorado River Compact: Fifty Years Ago, Fifty Years Ahead, 4 Ariz. J. Envtl. L. & Pol’y 130 (2014)