State of the Rockies Project: Two environmental law experts discussed Monday at The Colorado College the laws controlling Colorado River water allocation

For millions of years, the Colorado River was an unbroken chain from the headwaters of Longs Peak in the Colorado Rockies to the Sea of Cortez delta in Mexico. But since 1998, overuse of the river’s water has left 90 miles of dry delta.

The Bureau of Reclamation maintains that Westerners are using every drop of the river, yet the demand for its water is expected to increase substantially over the next decades.

What can be done to balance the growing utilitarian need and preservation of the Colorado River?

The laws governing the river were addressed Monday, Oct. 17, during the second of The Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project 2011-12 Monthly Speaker and Conference Series. The series examines the use, restoration and sustainability of the Colorado River Basin.

Greg Hobbs, a Colorado Supreme Court judge, and Lawrence MacDonnell, a law professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law, talked to about 300 students, faculty and El Paso County residents in Celeste South Theater on The Colorado College campus in Colorado Springs. The event was titled “The Colorado River Basin: Rigid Relic or Flexible Foundation for the Future?”

Hobbs and MacDonnell spoke of preserving river water through sensible use, and of solutions to the perfect storm of more demand for a finite resource.

The speakers said areas for conservation might occur in the unreasonably high allocation of water to California’s Imperial Valley, which gets one-fifth of the Colorado River water, and the high cost of delivering river water to metropolitan Arizona.

Solutions involved placing a limit on how much water new projects can allocate and decreasing use by the Lower Colorado River Basin.

“All these are easily doable by existing laws of the river and some new laws,” MacDonnell said, though he wondered if, politically, any of it was possible.

“My guess is we’ll wait to the crisis happens, when reservoirs are empty,” MacDonnell said. As humans, “we tend to put off unpleasant tasks” until the last minute.

Hobbs and MacDonnell also said that Westerners don’t value water because they don’t realize its actual cost. “If people paid anything close to what water actually costs,” MacDonnell said, “you would have different decisions being made.”

A short Q & A followed the speaker presentations.

A student wondered how you get companies, city governments and consumers to use less water when legally they are allowed their quota. Neither of the speakers had a good answer.

The next State of the Rockies speaker event is November 7 at the campus. It’s titled “The Colorado River Basin: Environmental Perspectives and Action.” Speaking at that event will be Bart Miller, a water program director at Western Resource Advocates; Jennifer Pitt, manager of the Environmental Defense Fund; and Tom Chart, an expert on fish biology. All series events are free and open to the public.

For more on upcoming State of the Rockies speaker events, go to

Written by Mark Barna, State of the Rockies Project Writer

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