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The Colorado River Compact: Navigating the Future

The Colorado River Compact: Navigating the Future

Day 1
DATE: Thursday, March 17 2022 - Friday, March 18 2022
TIME: 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
LOCATION: College of Law and Virtual Event
COST: $20-125
13 hours Utah CLE (pending).

Convened by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment and the Water & Tribes Initiative | Colorado River Basin

Click here to see the symposium brochure »


A Time to Reflect and Envision

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 is widely considered the cornerstone of the Law of the River, the collection of laws and policies that govern use of the Colorado River system. As fate would have it, the Compact’s 100th anniversary coincides with a major milestone for the Law of the River. The current management framework for the Colorado River system—a regime that implements the Compact in modern times—is set to expire in 2026. Between now and then, domestic and international negotiations will take place to develop the next management framework for the river system.

The climate for these negotiations could not be hotter—literally or figuratively. Climate change’s impacts on the Colorado River Basin’s hydrology are pronounced and unmistakable. The Basin is more than two decades into a “millennial drought” that commenced in 2000. The two main reservoirs on the Colorado River, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been drained to their lowest levels ever with no reprieve in sight.

This confluence of events presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for individuals and groups representing diverse interests to consider the past, present, and future of the Colorado River system; to consider how the Law of the River, including the Compact, should be adapted in the face of hydrological and other changes; and to share perspectives on the process of developing the next management framework.

The Wallace Stegner Center and the Water & Tribes Initiative are jointly hosting this two-day gathering. The intent is to bring together the basin community with the best available information to engage in an open, honest, and candid conversation about the past, present, and future of water management in the Colorado River Basin. It will allow participants to envision a common future and to develop strategies for sharing water, engaging tribes, integrating environmental considerations, and adapting to climate change. Basin leaders will help catalyze and frame discussions. Participants will have ample opportunities to ask questions, share perspectives, and engage in dialogue and deliberation.

The gathering is co-sponsored by a host of entities that reflect the diverse communities within the Basin, including state and federal agencies, municipal water suppliers, irrigated agriculture, conservation groups, and universities.

Please join us for this unique participatory dialogue.

The Context

It is difficult to overstate the Colorado River Compact’s significance. More than 40 million people rely on the flows governed by it. The 244,000 square-mile basin contains portions of seven U.S. states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming); two Mexican states (Baja California, Sonora); and 30 Indian reservations, including the largest in the United States—the Navajo Nation. Some of the American West’s largest urban areas are built within or depend on water exported from the Basin—e.g., Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. Agriculture produced with water from the Colorado River system feeds millions and is shipped all over the world. The Compact was one of the first interstate compacts in the United States to allocate water among several states. The region’s future depends on how the basin community approaches it and the broader Law of the River at this crucial time.


$125 General Public, if received before March 4
$150 General Registration if received on March 4 or later

$100 Seniors (62+), University and College Faculty & Staff, Government, Nonprofit, if received before March 4
$125 Seniors (62+), University and College Faculty & Staff, Government, Nonprofit, if received on March 4 or later

$20 Students

Principal Funders
Harold Burton Foundation
Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy
Cultural Vision Fund
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Walton Family Foundation

Other Supporters
American Rivers
Central Arizona Project
Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, University of Arizona
Colorado Water Conservation Board
Daniel D. Johnson
Denver Water
Environmental Defense Fund
Imperial Irrigation District
Interstate Stream Commission, New Mexico
Living Rivers
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation
Sonoran Institute
Southern Nevada Water Authority
The Nature Conservancy
Trout Unlimited
Western Resource Advocates

Anonymous Donors

Program Agenda

Thursday, March 17, 2021

8:30 amWelcome & Introduction

Elizabeth Kronk Warner, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law
Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation
Bob Keiter, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

8:45 am – Tribal Blessing & Introductory Comments

Ute Indian Tribe

9:00 am – Confluence at the Compact’s Centennial

Professor Robison will explain how the Compact’s centennial arrives at the same time as critical negotiations over the next management framework for the Colorado River system—a process driven largely by a two-decade-plus megadrought in the basin. This confluence of events makes the centennial a fitting occasion for reflecting on the past century of water management along the river system and for envisioning the next one. Referring to Cornerstone: The Next Century of the Colorado River Compact, a centennial book edited by Professor Robison, he will explain the contours of the symposium agenda and offer several questions for consideration throughout the event.

Jason Robison, University of Wyoming College of Law

9:15 am – Cornerstone: An Overview of the Colorado River Compact

The Colorado River Compact is widely considered the “cornerstone” of the so-called “Law of the River,” the complex body of laws and policies that govern the river system’s management. This session will explain how and why the Compact emerged, how it was developed, who participated (and who did not), and what the document includes (and what it does not). The session will touch on the role of science in developing the Compact and highlight other issues addressed more fully later in the symposium.

Larry MacDonnell, University of Colorado Law School

9:45 am – Audience Participation

10:00 am – Break 

10:30 am – The “Law of the River”: A Centennial Perspective

Although the Colorado River Compact serves as its cornerstone, the Law of the River has grown considerably over the past century, adapting to a host of social, economic, environmental, and political changes. This session will provide a high-level overview of how management of the Colorado River system has evolved, domestically and internationally, from 1922 to 2022. It will set the stage for deeper discussions on issues related to water allocation, environment, science, and governance.

Anne Castle, University of Colorado Law School

11:15 am – Audience Participation

11:30 am – First in Time: Native Americans & the Colorado River System

Native Americans are the Colorado River Basin’s original inhabitants. However, the basin’s thirty federally recognized tribes were almost entirely ignored at the Colorado River Compact negotiations, and they have only recently been invited to engage in policy discussions and collaborative efforts to solve water-related problems. This session will address the river system from a Native American perspective, touching on reserved rights claims and negotiated settlements, the importance of improving access to clean water for many tribes, the barriers to tribal water development, what tribal water rights mean for the basin’s future, and tribal participation in decision-making and problem-solving.

Margaret Vick, Colorado River Indian Tribes (30 minutes talk)
Bidtah Becker, Navajo Nation (5 minutes response)
Jason Hauter, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Fled LLP (5 minutes response)

12:10 pm – Audience Participation

12:30 pm – Lunch

1:30 pm – An International River: Mexico & the Colorado River System

Hydrologically, the Colorado River empties into the Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico. However, Mexico was treated as an afterthought at the Compact negotiations. This session will address Mexico’s interests in the Colorado River and reflect on U.S.-Mexico relations over the river system during the past 100 years. In addition to explaining Mexico’s role in the initial decades of implementing the Compact, this session will pay particular attention to major milestones since the megadrought’s onset in 2000, including conservation efforts in the Colorado River Delta and shortage sharing between U.S. and Mexico.

Carlos de la Parra, Restauremos el Colorado(30 minutes talk)
Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta, Cornell Lab of Ornithology (5 minutes response)
Chris Harris, Colorado River Board of California (5 minutes response)

2:10 pm – Audience Participation

2:30 pm – Break

3:00 pm – Science & Governance: From Overallocation to Climate Change and Megadrought

It is widely acknowledged that the Colorado River Compact negotiators ignored the best available science of the day. Water managers have since struggled with the issue of overallocation, particularly during the ongoing two-decade-plus megadrought. This session will explain how and why historical mistakes have been made, how water managers have attempted to respond, and the challenges and opportunities that must be addressed in developing the next management framework for the river system.

John Fleck, University of New Mexico School of Law (30 minutes talk)
Connie Woodhouse, University of Arizona (5 minutes response)
Jim Prairie, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (5 minutes response)

3:40 pm – Audience Participation

4:00 pm – Law & the Living Colorado River

Law is supposed to reflect societal values. It should change as those values evolve, and it should reflect the interests of all who have a stake in any set of issues, including critical natural resources that affect our lives and our well-being. The basin states and the federal government negotiated and ratified the Colorado River Compact to address a narrow set of anthropocentric economic development goals considered important by those interests at that time. As a result, the Compact and its complex set of implementing authorities exclude other important values, the interests of other groups with a stake in the health of the Colorado River, and the value of the river itself as a living system. Although more recent sources of law added some consideration of environmental values to the “Law of the River,” the Compact and its implementing statutes remain dominant where goals and values conflict. This session will review this history and propose ways to modernize the law to reflect current and evolving values and interests through a more inclusive process. 

Bob Adler, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law (Stegner Lecture) (40 minutes talk)
Jennifer Pitt, National Audubon Society (5 minutes response)
Nora McDowell, Pipa AhaMakav Cultural Center (5 minutes response)

4:50 pm – Audience Participation

5:00 pm – Adjourn


Friday, March 18, 2021

8:30 amWelcome & Synthesis of Day 1

Looking across the presentations and discussions throughout Day 1, Professor Ruple will provide a synthesis of lessons learned and possibilities for the future, reflecting in part on the questions posed by Jason Robison at the beginning of the event. Building on these reflections, Professor Ruple will offer an overview of Day 2.

John Ruple, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

8:45 am – Negotiating the Next Management Framework: Sovereign Perspectives

This session will focus on the three types of sovereigns within the Colorado River Basin: federal, state, and tribal. Panelists will offer their perspectives on two related issues: (1) the process of developing the next management framework for the river system, including opportunities for sovereign-to-sovereign negotiations and options to engage water users, stakeholders, and the broader public; and (2) the process of implementing the next management framework and the merits of establishing some type of basinwide, sovereign entity to oversee the ongoing management of the river system.

Moderator: Matt McKinney, University of Montana
Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation, to explain the vision of a Sovereign Governance Team and ideas on collaboration from Toward a Sense of the Basin (12 minutes)
Roberto Salomon-Castelo, ROSAL Consulting, former member from Mexico, International Boundary and Water Commission to explain Mexico’s interests and expectations (12 minutes)
Carly Jerla, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to explain the federal process (12 minutes)
Becky Mitchell, Colorado Water Conservation Board, to explain the Upper Basin process (12 minutes)
John Entsminger, Las Vegas Valley Water District/Southern Nevada Water Authority, to explain the Lower Basin process (12 minutes)

9:45  am – Facilitated Dialogue/Audience Participation

10:15 am – Break

10:45 am – Climate Change & the Next Management Framework

Current projections of climate change’s impacts on the Colorado River system suggest that flow levels will not return to anything resembling what previously has been considered “normal.” This session will review climate change science and consider its implications—uncertainty and otherwise—for the next management framework for the river system.

Moderator: Kathy Jacobs, University of Arizona
Brad Udall, Colorado State University, to discuss future scenarios that need to be addressed in the next management framework (15 minutes)
Tina Shields, Imperial Irrigation District, to discuss water use efficiency, conservation, and other strategies for irrigated agriculture (15 minutes)
Amy Haas, Colorado River Authority of Utah, to discuss water conservation and demand management in the Upper Basin (15 minutes)
Tom Bushatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources, to discuss how Arizona communities, including municipalities, are adapting to the realities of climate change (15 minutes)

11:45 am – Facilitated Dialogue/Audience Participation

12:15 pm – Lunch                      

12:30 pm – Art and the Colorado River Basin

Patrick Kikut, University of Wyoming

1:15 pm – Strategies to Equitably Share Water

This session will be framed by two important sidebars. The first is the uncertainties generated by climate change. The second revolves around the first enumerated purpose of the Colorado River Compact: “to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System.” This panel will present practical strategies to equitably share whatever water resources are available in the system, including conservation, demand management, water marketing, recycle and reuse, and other options.

Moderator: Amy McCoy, AMP Insights
Eric Kuhn, formerly Colorado River Water Conservation District, to discuss reallocation/ reapportionment scenarios for domestic and international water uses (15 minutes)
Jay Weiner, Rosette, LLP, Attorneys at Law to discuss flexible tools for tribes and the basin, emphasizing undeveloped and unresolved tribal water rights (15 minutes)
Meena Westford, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, to discuss strategies from a municipal perspective, including recycle and reuse programs (15 minutes)
Jack Schmidt, Utah State University, to discuss strategies to integrate ecological considerations into the next management framework (15 minutes)

2:15 pm – Facilitated Dialogue/Audience Participation

2:45 pm – Break

3:15 pm – Envisioning the Next 100 Years

Reflecting on the ideas and possibilities shared throughout the symposium, two younger leaders and two seasoned leaders will share their perspectives on what needs to happen to sustain the Colorado River system and the diversity of uses and values associated with its flows. How do we move from vision to action? What are the most important action items looking ahead from the Compact’s centennial? How can we best facilitate collaborative problem-solving among the diversity of water users and stakeholders?

Moderator: Heather Tanana, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law
John Bergrenn, Western Resource Advocates (10 minutes)
Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources (10 minutes)
Anne Castle, University of Colorado Law School (10 minutes)
Enrique “Henry” Martinez, Imperial Irrigation District (10 minutes)

4:00 pm – Keynote Address: From Hindsight to Foresight

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland will synthesize highlights from the past two days and offer perspectives on the past, present, and future of the Colorado River Basin

Secretary Deb Haaland, U.S. Department of the Interior [Invited]

4:45 pm – Audience Participation

5:00 pm – Adjourn


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