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The 70-year Administrative Record of Impending Water Shortages and the Failure to Act Appropriately

February 28, 2015
by John Weisheit

View from Harper's Corner in Dinosaur National Monument
View from Harper's Corner in Dinosaur National Monument

THE PUBLIC RECORD IS CLEAR: The present degradation of water quantity and water quality in the Colorado River basin was predicted to occur as early as 1946. Here is a summary of the administrative record:

The Career of Northcutt Ely - During the administration of Herbert Hoover, Northcutt Ely served as deputy secretary in the Department of Interior. He is also the co-author of The Hoover Dam Documents (Part One), which is a compendium of legal documents known as the "Law of the River." Later on, he represented the Colorado River Board of California. He was lead counsel for California during the infamous US Supreme Court hearing known as Arizona vs California. It took 12 years to resolve this court proceeding (1952 to 1964).

It is true that Ely was a fierce advocate for protecting the water allocation of California and the investment of it's infrastructure to deliver that water, but this advocacy can just as easily be mirrored, or transformed, into an advocacy for the entire watershed from mountain to the sea. Ely's over-reaching goal was watershed sustainibility for human needs. Indirectly, however, he was a casual champion for preserving sections of the river's ecological integrity.

Ely strongly believed that watershed resiliency did not mean building more and more dams. He understood the threshold point of diminishing returns were going to be exceeded by the Colorado River Storage Act of 1956, and even further extended by the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968. Excessive reservoir storage increases consumptive losses in the form of evaporation and seepage. Over-developing the watershed with numerous diversions and reservoirs also decreases the quality of the water by loading the river water with salt and heavy metals.

As a result of his advocacy, two dams were not built on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, and two dams were not built in the Grand Canyon. Though most historians would give this credit soley to the Sierra Club, other historians have identified Northcutt Ely's important role in this outcome.

See:  Still the Wild River Runs: Congress, the Sierra Club, and the fight to save the Grand Canyon. Byron Pearson.

Please also read Jeff Ingram's review of Pearson's book here: Grand Canyon Futures. Jeff served the Sierra Club as the Southwest Regional Director.


1946 - "Light on the Mexican Water Treaty" (of 1944) by California water attorney Northcutt Ely. Introduced in Salt Lake City during the annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association.

Page 20 - A water budget was completed in 1946 by the state of California using the best available hydrologic data of the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River Compact was 24-years old at that time. The treaty with Mexico is a fixed allocation of 1.5 million acre feet (1.7 maf in times of surplus). This water budget may be the earliest acknowledgement in the public record that the annual average flow of the Colorado River basin cannot satisfy the demands of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Said Ely, "No sound planning can be done for new projects until the water budget is balanced again in some way." Seventy years hence, the water budget has yet to be balanced again "in some way."

1954 - Congressional testimony by California's water attorney Northcutt Ely.

Page 585 (of the above linked testimony) - Ely testifies that California does not oppose water development in the upper basin, only the construction of huge reservoirs that did not directly support a consumptive use, namely Glen Canyon and Echo Park dams. These huge proposed upper basin reservoirs would be built to generate electricity. He correctly reminded Congress that hydropower is an incidental use and not a consumptive use, which is the primary objective of the Colorado River Compact.

He projected by year 2000, when maximum consumption in the basin would occur, that these large reservoirs would not have sufficient reservoir elevations for the efficient generation of hydropower to reimburse the debt to the federal treasury, nor to mechanically lift water from the Colorado River reservoirs into aqueducts and canals for consumptive uses. California also objected to the needless and massive loss of water to evaporation in these "holdover" reservoirs, which increases salinity and which could be applied to a consumptive use in the lower basin for at least 50 years, or until the time the upper Colorado River basin fully developed it's Compact allocation.

As it turned out, Echo Park Dam was not built for reasons that the reservoir would destroy the values of Dinosaur National Monument and not for the reasons cited by the state of California. They still objected to the building of Glen Canyon Dam, which was authorized by Congress in 1956.

Page 600 - Northcutt Ely brings up the issue of water quality and the promise by the Commissioner of Colorado in 1922 that his state would limit Colorado River diversions across the Continental Divide to 300,000 acre-feet. Ely argues that the intent of this promise in the administrative record is to maintain low salinity levels for consumptive uses in the lower basin states and Mexico. Thus, the 1922 Compact is also an agreement for preserving the integrity of the river's water quality.

The Bureau of Reclamation's development plan for the state of Colorado in 1950 called for 2 million acre-feet to cross the Divide, thus aggravating the salinity issue for the lower basin users and, in this regard, the forthcoming Colorado River Storage Project Act of 1956 (CRSP) would degrade the intent of the 1922 Compact.

The congressional authorization of the CRSP did indeed foul the lower basin's water quality and forced Congress to pass the Colorado River Salinity Control Act of 1974 to mitigate the problem. Damages from salinity to the lower basin states ranges from 500 million to 750 million dollars per year. Damages from salinity in Mexico are unknown.

1967 - "The Oil Shale Industry's Water Problems" by Northcutt Ely. A speech delivered to the Colorado School of Mines at Golden Colorado.

In this address, Ely mentions importing water from other river basins as a possible remedy to address the over-allocation problem of the Colorado River basin. Remember please, that the point of this article is to demonstrate that the water managers have always known the Colorado River was headed for shortages.

This issue had been an ongoing discussion in Congress since 1963, which was strongly opposed by the distant states being asked to give water to the states within the Colorado River basin. To this day the pursuit continues, but the states of the Columbia River basin, the Great Lakes region and the Missouri River basin have adopted policies against water imports to the the users of the Colorado River system. And for excellent reasons, since they fully understand the water managers of the Colorado River continue to generate bad public policies in their insatiable quest for more and more water. 



The following chronology demonstrates the legacy of dedicated scientists providing the best available science to water managers for the purpose of developing good management practices in a watershed:

  • 1864 - George Perkins Marsh defines the watershed management approach to avoid future issues of scarcity by conforming to the laws of nature. Man and Nature.
  • 1879 - John Wesley Powell presents a bold watershed management plan that yields to the laws of nature. Using field data collected by federal scientists, he demonstrated that the populist promise, "rain will follow the plow," was grossly misleading to the settlers moving to Lands of the Arid Regions.
  • 1891 - Clarence Dutton explains to Congress that the prior appropriation doctrine is flawed in regards to the equitable sharing of water at maximum development. Ceding the Arid Lands to States & Territories.
  • 1902 - Following the authorization of the Reclamation Act, Frederick H. Newell of U.S. Geological Survey, reminded dam builders that sediment fill would eventually render their reservoirs useless.
  • 1933 - The Hoover Dam Commission determines that the best way to provide flood control is through reservoir management and to avoid spillway operations. Reinforced concrete cannot withstand the extreme velocity of falling water in closed conduits for long periods of time.
  • 1946 - Hydrologists from California informed the seven states of the Colorado River Compact that the annual flow of the Colorado River was over-appropriated by 1.8 million acre-feet.
  • 1954 - Northcutt Ely, the former Deputy Secretary of Interior during the Herbert Hoover administration, informs Congress that operations at Hoover Dam will not fulfill hydropower contracts in the first decade of the 21st century for reasons of exhausted reservoirs caused by redundant dam construction in the upper basin and the overallocation of Colorado River water.  Congressional Testimony of Northcutt Ely.
  • 1957 - Geophysicists from UC San Diego (Scripps) provided data to demonstrate that greenhouse gas emissions, sourced to human activities, would negatively alter the hydrologic cycle of the planet.
  • 1960 -  H. R Gould of the Bureau of Reclamation informs water managers that water storage and flood control capacities are compromised when sediment storage in a reservoir reaches 50 percent. Sedimentation in Relation to Reservoir Utilization.
  • 1976 - Geophysicists working with UC Los Angeles analyzed tree-ring data from the Colorado River Basin and determined the long-term annual supply at the Lee's Ferry gage was 2.8 million acre-feet lower than the total apportionments of the Colorado River Compact.
  • 1974 - As JW Powell forewarned, water projects at the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin that transfer water across divides and into adjacent river basins did indeed foul water quality in the lower basin (salt loading), which necessitated Congress to pass the Colorado River Salinity Control Act to mitigate this expensive problem. Damage from salinity to the lower basin states range from 500 to 750 million dollars per year. Damages from salinity in Mexico are unknown.
  • 1978 - Citizens appealed to the federal courts over failure by the Bureau of Reclamation to initiate Environmental Impact Studies for modifying hydropower operations in the Colorado River Basin. Congress, however, never provided the necessary appropriations to initiate this basin-wide study. Though the timeframe of the 2012 Basin Study extends to year 2060, this document does not conform to the rigorous guidelines and public consultation opportunities provided by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Council on Environmental Quality. EDF v Higginson.
  • 1979 - The Government Accountability Office advises Colorado River water managers to initiate new policies and modify infrastructure to prepare for water shortages in the first decade of the 21st century. Colorado River Basin Water Problems
  • 1983 - Dam managers maintained high pool elevations at Lakes Mead & Powell during a strong El Niño event. This decision compromised the ability to safely bypass a snow melt that totaled 14 million acre-feet. The spillways at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams were needlessly damaged and the bypass flows to the Gulf of California destroyed infrastructure and private property. Paleoflood hydrology was then an emerging science in the Colorado River Basin and field work since has provided evidence that Colorado River flood events have magnitudes that are at least 4 times greater than the snow melt of 1983. A 2000 Year Record of Magnitude and Frequencies for Floods in the Upper Colorado River.
  • 2008 - Geophysicists from UC San Diego (Scripps) warned Colorado River managers that Lakes Mead & Powell will likely run dry despite cooperative agreements to conserve water.
  • 2014 - Hydrologists from UC Irvine warned Colorado River managers that the groundwater of the Colorado River is being consumed by humans faster than nature can replenish the aquifers.
  • 2015 - Twenty-three academics urged Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell to engage the National Academy of Sciences to review the science and policy assessments the Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study.

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