Geography Compass

Court Battle over Colorado River Water

By Georgia Davis Conover

Arizona is one of the highest growth states in the United States.  It is also in the midst of a decade-long drought.  Much of the water for Phoenix and Tucson, the two largest cities in Arizona, comes from the Colorado River which forms the western border of the state.  The water is brought across the Sonoran Desert to the two cities through a series of open canals known as the Central Arizona Project, or CAP.   The increasing demand for water brought on by development, coupled with the prolonged drought, have CAP managers contemplating declaring their first water shortage since the inception of the canal system in the 1960’s.  CAP officials stress, however, that a declared shortage is not a problem that will impact Arizona residents—the average consumer will experience no change in water service—because the CAP has been storing water underground for years in anticipation of such a situation.

But, there is a complicating factor: a decades- long battle over the water in the Colorado River.  Arizona is one of seven states with rights to Colorado River water and, after years of negotiations, an agreement was reached so that California would stop taking more than its legal share.  However, part of that agreement mandated that California pay to keep water flowing to the Salton Sea.  While environmentalists cheered that development, a federal judge struck down the agreement saying it tied the budgetary hands of the California legislature without allowing lawmakers to vote on the agreement.  The other states with rights to Colorado River water plan on appealing the judge’s ruling.

The Colorado River, like rivers around the world, has been shaped by decades of human interventions designed to ensure water supplies to growing areas.  The work of Ellen Wohl and Dorothy Merrits suggests that such alterations have actually changed society’s expectations of what a river should look like.   And that has implications for river use and restoration projects, which often are based on public perceptions.  Wohl and Merrit argue, that to effectively manage rivers and river restoration projects, it is critical to understand more precisely how rivers, like the Colorado, have been altered by human activity.

Read and listen to the Arizona Public Media story.

Read Wohl, Ellen and Dorothy J. Merrits. 2007. What is a Natural River? Geography Compass. 1(4) pps.871-900.

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