The Colorado River Compact: Navigating the Future

Feb 10, 2022 | Stegner Center


The Wallace Stegner Center and the Water & Tribes Initiative co-hosted a symposium convening experts, stakeholders and representatives of sovereign tribes in the Colorado River Basin to reflect on the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact, and to envision a common future along the river system in the face of unprecedented challenges. 

The Colorado River is at a tipping point. Forty million people rely on the river system’s flows. In the midst of a megadrought, lakes Mead and Powell—the two main reservoirs on the Colorado River—have been drained to their lowest levels ever, with no reprieve in sight. In August 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage for the Lower Basin of the Colorado River, triggering usage cuts for Arizona and Nevada beginning in 2022.

As this hydrological crisis unfolds, water managers are poised to revise and update the existing framework for managing the river system, which is set to expire in 2026. Coincidentally, negotiations over the next management framework are taking place as the Colorado River Compact—the cornerstone of the so-called “Law of the River”—turns 100 years old in 2022. Domestic and international water managers face several challenges, such as climate change and drought, local demands for more water, ongoing environmental issues, and earnest calls to address the water rights of the river basin’s 30 Native American tribes.

In response to this confluence of events, the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah College of Law, in partnership with the Water & Tribes Initiative, hosted a two-day symposium titled “The Colorado River Compact: Navigating the Future” on March 17 and 18, 2022. The event marked the Stegner Center’s 27th annual symposium.

The symposium featured experts from various fields in law, public policy, and science, including speakers from federal agencies, tribal nations and entities, and the U.S. and Mexican states located in the Colorado River Basin. Speakers focused on the river compact’s centennial as an opportunity to reexamine the management of the river system and its associated economic, environmental, and cultural impacts. Together with attendees representing diverse interests in and around the river basin, speakers aimed to envision a common future—and to develop strategies for sharing water, engaging tribes, integrating environmental considerations, and adapting to climate change.

“This symposium was a unique opportunity to reflect on the past 100 years of water management in the Colorado River Basin, and to engage in an open, transparent discussion with all sovereigns and all stakeholders about the best path forward to accommodate multiple needs and interests,” said Daryl Vigil, co-facilitator of the Water & Tribes Initiative and the water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation.

“The Stegner Center was pleased to co-host this timely gathering to promote public understanding and dialogue on the critical challenges confronting Colorado River managers, along with the basin states and diverse communities reliant on the river,” said Robert Keiter, director of the Stegner Center and Wallace Stegner Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law.

More information about the event, speakers, and registration is available here.