December 28, 2022 | By:

The Colorado River Compact at 100 Years Old

Dusk in the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Dave Foreman

Dusk in the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Dave Foreman

By Jack Loeffler

The greater watershed of the Colorado River is a mosaic of ecosystems ranging in altitude from over 14,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains to sea level at the delta flowing into the Sea of Cortez. The river and its tributaries have carved a wondrous array of canyons including the Grand Canyon that has revealed in great detail a geologic guide through many ages to deep antiquity. The entire watershed includes a landscape of about 244,000 square miles. The Colorado River itself is about 1,440 miles long, and until the turn of the 20th century, provided the Sea of Cortez an annual average of around 15 million-acre feet of fresh water. An acre foot is an acre of water one foot deep and contains nearly 326,000 gallons.

For thousands of years, distant ancestors of some of today’s Native American populations used the water from the river to nurture their crops. Ancestral Puebloans created irrigation techniques while further south, Indians blew seeds of edible plants into the flood plain to supplement their hunter-gatherer lifestyles. When humans first entered the ecosystem now known as the Sonoran Desert, the landscape was still a piñon-juniper grassland. Human cultures evolved as the living landscape evolved to include those humans as part of habitat.

That was before our species regarded ourselves as separate from habitat, and therefore special.

During the 16th century of the current era, Europeans of primarily Spanish ancestry began slowly migrating in from Mexico where they had established an extension of the Spanish Empire of yore. Then during the 19th century, northern Europeans and their descendants began to migrate in from the eastern portion of the North American Continent in pursuit of their presumed Manifest Destiny to claim the entirety of the continent as their own, while displacing and even slaying tens of thousands of indigenous peoples whose ancestors had inhabited this land for well over ten thousand years.

Easterners, many of Anglo descent entered the sunny and dry landscape of the Southwest and were appalled by the prevailing aridity with very few bodies of water that included the Río Colorado and Río Grande.  As noted author Patty Limerick recounted of their perspective: ‘“This is the ugliest wasteland. Why would God give us this?’ To then get to this next level of cognition of saying ‘Oh, it’s a challenge. I get it. It’s put these parts together and then you’ll have Ohio.’”

The Río Colorado was the southwestern river with the most water in it, and would-be agriculturalists decided to do their best to use it to develop the land for growing abundant crops. Along the western bank of the river near the present international boundary with Mexico, were great valleys that could produce every manner of flora if the land could be irrigated. Thus, they started digging a major canal into what is now the Imperial Valley of California. The resulting debacle is history. As my friend author William deBuys noted:

“At that time, geologically, the Colorado, having oscillated back and forth across its delta, had been over on the east side of the delta for a long time, and geologically it was time for it to start moving west.  Well, here was the great opportunity.  An open door, a heavy flow of water, and boom!  It went.  Essentially, the river adopted the irrigation canal as its main channel, and what then ensued was a kind of apocalyptic experience for the Imperial Valley as the river flooded and flooded and flooded with repeated storms. It followed in the spring again with snow melt, and for two years, a kind of humpty-dumpty story was played out with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, trying to put the river back again.  They couldn’t do it for two years, until finally, with all the resources of the Southern Pacific railroad, they put together a really crack team of engineers.  The gap was finally closed, and the river was constrained within its old channel.”

Fifty years earlier, a one-armed Civil War veteran—John Wesley Powell—selected a crew of hearty souls, and together they navigated wooden dories down through the Grand Canyon, the first humans to do so as far as is known. The canyon is rife with rapids that can swallow a boat and the humans therein in a single gulp. Somehow, they made it, and some years later made yet another boat trip through the Canyon. Powell went on to wander the arid West on horseback, unarmed as it were.

Powell thereafter became the second director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the first director of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE). He was a brilliant man who understood more about the nature of the American West than anyone. As Director of the USGS, he mapped the West watershed by watershed, and he lobbied vigorously before the U.S. Congress to organize the West politically and culturally by watersheds, with the intent that the settlers therein, learning the nature of their respective habitat, largely govern each watershed in a state of mutual cooperation. These lands would still owe fealty to the federal government but would be somewhat de-centralized, each with its respective governance compatible with their watershed habitat. The Feds turned him down, eastern developers already on the move to turn the lands to the West into money. Thus, the West is divided into a hodgepodge of states largely bounded, not by natural contours and waterways in the landscape, but with state-lines configured in such a way that has little to do with Nature, but everything to do with linear thinking.

The race was on, and California took an early lead, both agriculturally and population-wise. Other less developed states were greatly concerned that California would claim all the Colorado River water by establishing prior rights. Thus in 1922, representatives from seven states privy to the waters of the Colorado River watershed including Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California met at Bishop’s Lodge near Santa Fe, New Mexico to forge what was to become the Colorado River Compact that eventually led to ‘The Law of the River.’ The meeting was presided over by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover who would later become the thirty-first President of the United States succeeding Calvin Coolidge.

The year 2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of the Colorado River Compact.


In 2000, I was invited by the humanities councils of the seven states mentioned above to write grant proposals to produce a radio series as an adjunct to an existing developing project to be titled, “Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West.” I wrote and submitted proposals through the Arizona Humanities Council to both the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Ford Foundation, and was awarded funding from both organizations to proceed. Happiness was mine! By then, I’d been running rivers in the West for 30 years as well as hiking and camping throughout the Colorado Plateau and far beyond for 40 years in perpetual quest of the great mystery revealed by Nature unfolding.

My old Chevy pickup with camper shell was already loaded with my camping gear. To that, I added a satchel containing sound recorder, microphones, earphones, pad, pen, and toothbrush, and away I went. Over the next months, I wandered throughout the watershed getting near the headwaters of the Green, Colorado, and San Juan Rivers as well as many of the communities served by the River. At that time, it was estimated that some 25 million humans depended on the Colorado River for at least part of if not most of their water. Today, that population is estimated to be 40 million! And it is also presently revealed that there’s not enough water in that system to serve both the human population and the vast irrigation districts that rely on the River for water. More on that downstream.

In preparation, I read several books as well as printed research garnered by both federal and private agencies. Thus, I had some sense of the body of the Law of the River, and I had two close friends who were Colorado River scholars. One was the aforementioned Bill deBuys whose books, Salt Dreams and Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell remain absolutely required reading. The other friend was former Arizona Congressman and Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. I had known Stewart for over 30 years, and he provided me with insights otherwise unavailable. I have remained fortunate in my friendships through these 85 years of life.

Nancy Dallette, director of the overall project for the Arizona Humanities Council, provided me with names of river scholars with whom I intended to conduct recorded interviews. I didn’t have a cell phone, but rather a land-line telephone credit card. Over the next months, I became well-acquainted with myriad public phone booths throughout seven western states. And I actually spoke with everyone on my list.

One of the most learned interviewees that I recorded was William Swan, an attorney who was an authority on the Colorado River Compact. He imparted some interesting history to me: “Congress was appropriating money for diversion works clear back in the 1800s.  But when things really got rolling in the late 1800s, early 1900s, there was just simply a huge tension.  Because as the West began to develop, you had the populations developing more in the Southwest, in California, and along the river in Arizona, and not so much in the other states.  And the other states looking at this interstate river said, ‘Whoa.  Wait a minute.  We may be at risk here, because under the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, somebody who puts the water to use could claim the whole right to the river.’  And so, they could eventually claim possibly all of the river flow for themselves.  So, the Upper Basin states [Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico] got very nervous about that and decided to go to Congress.  They asked Congress to help with the development of a compact.  So, Congress consented.  They appointed a referee, so to speak, in the form of Mr.  [Herbert] Hoover.  They sat down and tried to work out a compact.  They would like, I think, to have worked out a situation where they could figure out how much each state would get.  But that was just too difficult.  So, they divided it into basins.  The upper basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, against the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada and tried to work out a division of the water, just to protect each sphere, so to speak.  The upper sphere and the lower sphere.  And they finally did that by thinking that the river flowed more than 15,000,000 acre-feet a year, and divided it 50-50, seven and a half million acre-feet per year to the Upper Basin, seven and a half million to the Lower Basin, as some way of sharing the river in perpetuity so that the Upper Basin would feel secure.

In hindsight, it is flawed because the river may not produce that much water, and they recognized at the time that Mexico would eventually need a share of that.  Of course, later, in the 1940s we did work out the treaty with Mexico which gave Mexico a guaranteed million and a half [acre feet].  When you add those up, seven and a half, seven and a half, and the one point five, you are at sixteen and a half million acre-feet.  And even the Bureau of Reclamation will say the river doesn’t produce that every year. It is probably close to fifteen million acre-feet, but it is not sixteen and a half.  So, we will have a crisis some day in the future.  That division [Upper and Lower Basins] under the Colorado River Compact of 1922 is really the foundation of this whole thing.”

Stewart Udall

Stewart Udall © Jack Loeffler

The dividing line separating the Upper Basin States from the Lower Basin is located at Lee’s Ferry just south of the state-line between Utah and Arizona.   Former Arizona Congressman and Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, contends that the Colorado River Compact established in Santa Fe in 1922 led to events that enabled Californians to develop Colorado River water well in advance of the other six states:

“Herbert Hoover served them well.  I have never understood why he was there.  He was, in effect, California’s agent in putting this through.  They wanted an agreement that would enable them to go to Congress and build Boulder [now Hoover] Dam.  That was a kind of forced marriage.  It ended up with this strange thing that never happened in other basins, of each state being allocated a certain amount of water.  This is purely arbitrary.  There was no rational basis for it.  Hoover, I am sure, was under pressure.  They had to have an agreement that led, of course, to the construction of Boulder Dam.  And that enormous project went forward in the depths of the Great Depression.  This again showed the political power that Southern California was exerting–and the economic power, because it got the electric power companies involved.  This was, in essence, a California project.  It wasn’t anything beneficial to the basin.  And the water, other than that flowing down the river to the delta, and flowing to the few irrigation districts like Imperial Valley, and other huge users of water, the key water, rather good quality water was going to Southern California through an aqueduct.”

California was on a roll, determined to make the most of their access to the Colorado River. They got there first and took the most. Their allocation was determined to be 4.4 million-acre feet per year, however, because the Upper Basin states were far from developing their potential of water use, California sucked up an additional 1.2 million-acre feet of unused Upper Basin water that flowed into the Lower Basin.

The water was apportioned as follows:

Upper Basin:
Wyoming- 1.043 million acre-feet
Colorado- 3.855 million acre-feet
Utah- 1.714 million acre-feet
New Mexico- 838,000 acre-feet
Arizona- northern strip in Navajo-Hopi country- 50,000 acre-feet

Lower Basin:
Nevada- 300,000 acre-feet
Arizona- 2.8 million acre-feet (originally 2.3 million acre-feet)
California- 4.4 million acre-feet

Arizona did not agree to their original apportionment compared to California. They didn’t sign the Compact, and it wasn’t until 41 years later with a Supreme Court decision in 1963 that they were annually apportioned 2.8 million-acre feet. But there was a catch. Before California would finally agree to Arizona’s apportionment, Arizona had to agree to being junior to California. If there wasn’t enough water for all states in the Lower Basin, Arizona would have to make up for any shortfall to California. Stewart Udall elucidates: “The Santa Fe [Colorado River] Compact simply divided waters and produced interstate agreements, although Arizona refused to participate.  And they fought it for 20 years because they saw it as California getting the upper hand and dominating the river.  They were correct, in my opinion in that assumption.  But they had to have a law, and that became the Boulder Canyon Project, which would spell out what was going to happen if this big dam was built.  That was the beginning, really, of what they now call the ‘Law of the River.’  This was a lawyer’s dream.  Lawyers in all the affected states had to become acquainted with the Law, and then additional laws were written.  And now there is a body of law called ‘The Law of the River.’  This is not true in any other river basin in the United States to this degree.  Law governs everything.”

Many people who analyze the relative strengths of different states think that California had the most influence, and therefore got the best deal with the 1922 compact.  Floyd Dominy served as Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation over-seeing the critical period of dam building in the mid-twentieth century.  He disagrees: “As a matter of fact, I am kind of surprised that the Compact doesn’t favor California more than it does.  When you stop and think that the time that Compact was drafted, in the 1920s, there were 15 congressmen from California and Arizona and Nevada.  There were only 8 in the Upper Basin states.  So, the population already favored California.  And the influence in Congress already favored California.  I’m kind of surprised that it came out the way it did.  Now, the reason it did was because California wanted Hoover Dam.  And they wanted the All-American Canal.  They had to have some support from the rest of the West in order to get that.  I think, actually, it turned out quite favorably for the Upper Basin states.”

In Santa Barbara, I interviewed Norris Hundley, author of The Great Thirst, and most insightful lifelong Colorado River scholar, who spoke of other inadequacies of the 1922 Colorado River Compact: “An important thing to keep in mind about the Compact is that it reflects its time in being an ethnocentric document.  The Indians weren’t invited to participate, nor was there any consideration of giving them a share of the water.  Hoover said, ‘We don’t want to put a wild Indian provision in here, create a problem for ourselves.’  Mexico asked to have representation.  Prior to this time–it would go on for another two decades–Mexico had been negotiating with the United States over rights to Colorado River water, and to water in the Río Grande.  The Compact negotiator said ‘No’ to inviting Mexicans.  ‘We don’t want to have the Mexicans here.’  Everyone suspected there would someday be a treaty.  The Basins would share that Mexican burden as they called it.  But other than that, nothing was said.”

I would add that this was also an anthropocentric document in that it served only presumed human needs. It took absolutely no consideration for the myriad other species of biota that abounded including fish, reptiles, mammals, birds, plant-life–or even the geophysical damage wrought by construction of dams and waterways that now crisscross the fragile desert habitats of the North American Southwest. The document was also Anglo-centric, written in English, prompted by the long cultural history of hegemony that characterized the prevailing political hierarchy that continues to this day.

Thus it was that the enormous Boulder [now Hoover] Dam was constructed. It took a number of years, much of the construction occurring during the Great Depression that began in 1929 when the stock market crashed. California was also able to construct the All-American Canal beginning in 1934 that extends from the river westward for about eighty-two miles just north of the international boundary between California and Mexico. Its waters irrigate over a half-million acres of the Imperial Valley that provides an enormous amount of produce and revenue.

It took American involvement in World War II to result in a water treaty with Mexico.

Stewart Udall: “The history of the 1944 treaty with Mexico was during the war, 1944, and obviously was an effort by President Roosevelt to mollify the Mexican officials.  They had agriculture south of the Imperial Valley. And Baja, California was a rich agricultural area, and they wanted to protect their water.  And they said, ‘You divided up the river, but you left us out.’  And so, this treaty guaranteed Mexico a certain amount of water.  And that was the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Treaty.  It wasn’t a treaty with the states.  It was the United States of America and the government of Mexico.”

Stewart also told me that he thought that President Roosevelt made that treaty happen to ensure that Mexico wouldn’t allow Axis forces to set up military bases in Mexico to result in bringing World War II to American soil.

With Boulder Dam and the All-American Canal, California was in the catbird seat. They were using every drop of their allotted 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado River. However, California needed even more water to serve major cities including Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Santa Ana. Thus, yet another aqueduct was planned. But first, another dam must be constructed, hence the Parker Dam was designed and built, and resulted in another reservoir known as Lake Havasu. That dam was completed in 1935, and the Colorado River Aqueduct started transporting water from the Colorado River to the great cities to the west.

Arizona politicians seethed at what they regarded as grave injustice. If California was to get their great water project, Arizonans wanted their project as well. Arizona took their complaint to the Supreme Court. Decisions were delayed for eleven more years thanks to California politicians. But finally in 1963, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Arizona by awarding them 2.8 million-acre feet plus the instate flow of the Gila River that originates near Silver City, New Mexico. Its tributaries include the Salt and Verde Rivers.

There was a catch. In order to secure California’s votes of approval, Arizona had to agree that under no circumstances could California be deprived of its allotted 4.4 million-acre feet unless the river ran so low that there wasn’t that much water flowing into the Lower Basin. Indeed, Arizona agreed, but it would take a century before Arizona had to reduce its allotment. More on that downstream.

Arizona had long dreamt of its own project. The dream project known as the Central Arizona Project [CAP] was born. Earlier on in 1902, the Reclamation Act had been passed, resulting in the US Reclamation Service [now Bureau of Reclamation] whose main purpose was to serve agriculturalists by providing water for irrigation. Thus, by 1911, the Salt River had been dammed to provide irrigation waters to farmers in southern Arizona. The dam, now called Roosevelt Dam after Theodore, was also capable of providing hydroelectricity. The entire project was deemed a great success and became known as the Salt River Project.

The Central Arizona Project was to be modeled after the Salt River Project. The plan was to pump water from Lake Havasu from a pumping station situated on the east bank that would pump water up and over mountain ranges in a lined ditch to supply irrigation water to farmers in the central valleys of Arizona. This would require electricity. The plan was to construct yet two more dams on the Colorado River, the Bridge Canyon Dam just south of Grand Canyon, and the Marble Canyon Dam just north of Grand Canyon. These would be ‘cash register dams’ whose sole purpose was to generate electricity to run the pumping station on Lake Havasu to pump water into central Arizona.

At which point, David Brower, one of the greatest environmentalists of the 20th century stepped into the breech and said, “NO WAY!!” as only Dave could. Earlier on, partnering with Martin Litton, with the support of the Sierra Club they had thwarted construction of the proposed Echo Park and Split Mountain Dams to have been constructed near the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers that would have resulted in a reservoir that would have flooded part of Dinosaur National Monument.

Martin Litton was a great adventurer who had wooden dories constructed after the same design used by John Wesley Powell nearly a century earlier. Litton was also a photographer and journalist who learned of the proposed Echo Park Dam, and he headed north to document it for the Los Angeles Times. I interviewed Martin Litton in his home in 2001. He had this to say: “I got a call from David Brower, whom I didn’t know, but I think I had heard of him. It was 1952.  That is when he became Executive Director of the Sierra Club.  And he had heard of me because he had seen these articles in the Los Angeles Times I had been running, which were pretty rabid.  They were pro-natural environment, and nothing else.  He wanted me to come and join him in doing great things with the Sierra Club.  He was on fire.  And we decided to get together and work together on this within the Sierra Club in stopping the Split Mountain and Echo Park Dams in Dinosaur National Monument.  The Sierra Club achieved its first real conservation victory in those four years.  We sit back, and I am very much a part of it by then, and say, ‘My God, how did that happen?  We saved Dinosaur.’  In saving Dinosaur, you are not just talking about a quarry with Dinosaur bones in it.  You are talking about a vast magnificent area that is worthy of the same kind of attention as any other National Park.  There is a symbolism to it.”

Floyd Dominy was Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in the mid-twentieth century.  He was born in 1913 and grew up on a dry farm in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl years.  He was relentless in his pursuit of greening up the landscape of the arid west by building dams to provide water for countless irrigation projects and to generate hydroelectricity for both pumping water and to power the cities of the west.  “A lot of people get confused.  They think that Echo Park was a substitute for Glen Canyon or that Glen Canyon was a substitute for Echo Park.  Actually, Glen Canyon Dam would have been needed whether or not Echo Park and Split Mountain were authorized.  They were strictly ‘cash register’ dams that were on the Green River.  They didn’t provide the huge carry-over storage that was required that Glen Canyon would do.  Now, it is said that it is just a matter of poor nomenclature that they got defeated.  If they would have been called Rattlesnake Butte and Snake Hollow, we could have got them authorized.  But to talk about Echo Park and Split Mountain, it was a bad nomenclature.  At any rate, Dave Brower and company had beat the Bureau hands down on that one.”

What was that about Glen Canyon Dam?  This dam and resulting Lake Powell reservoir was Floyd Dominy’s dream dam. In 1956, the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) went into effect in order to provide water storage upstream from Lee’s Ferry so that the Upper Basin would be able to guarantee 8.3 million-acre feet of water to the Lower Basin during the dry years. I interviewed Rick Gold, an authority on the subject in Salt Lake City.

“The Colorado River Storage Project yielded a plan for a storage project that is actually an amalgam of several mainstream units, as they are called, Glen Canyon [Dam] being one of those.  Aspinall Unit being another, and three dams over in Colorado that include the Navajo Unit [Dam] and the Flaming Gorge Unit [Dam].  Those [dams] are called the mainstream, or the initial units of the Colorado River storage project. [There are] about 21 other associated projects called the ‘participating’ projects.  And those projects are called participators because they participate through the funding mechanism of power revenues, helping to repay the irrigation aid for irrigation in the Upper Basin.  Those mainstream units, all except Navajo [Dam] in CRSP have federal hydro-power.  And that hydro-power generates power at cost… and is sold to the public power utilities across the West. The revenue that comes from the sale of that hydro-power generation then not only pays for the investment in hydro-power, but it pays for that portion of the irrigation investment that is beyond the individual irrigators’ ability to repay [hence the term ‘cash register dams’].  And that is sort of the background of what and why the Colorado River Storage Project came into being.  It was an Upper Basin-wide plan for the development of the Colorado River, through storage, initial units, and through participating projects.”

Thus, in 1956, construction began on the most contested dam in America—the Glen Canyon Dam. Shortly thereafter, a student at the University of New Mexico named Edward Abbey and his buddy, Ralph Newcomb decided to go adventuring in Glen Canyon. They borrowed a couple of old rafts, tied them together, and away they went through one of the most beautiful canyons in the world. Then near the end of their trip, they encountered the construction of the dam that would flood Glen Canyon, drown it, bury it beneath yet another reservoir on the Colorado River second in size only to Lake Mead formed by the Hoover Dam downstream. To say that they were monumentally pissed off is an understatement. Abbey, who was a burgeoning author, wrote eloquently about this debacle in his classic book of essays, Desert Solitaire. In my opinion, it was this extraordinary book that invigorated the genesis of the radical environmental movement after its publication in 1968 when many of America’s youth were engaging in what came to be known as the counterculture movement.

But back to the subject at hand, when Dave Brower and the Sierra Club thoroughly thwarted the Bureau of Reclamation’s scheme to construct dams at either end of the Grand Canyon proclaiming that the Bureau was going to flood Grand Canyon! Another source of electricity had to be found. If dams weren’t the answer, what next? There was known to be an abundant coal deposit in northern Arizona buried in a mesa known as Black Mesa. It was located in Indian Country–Hopi and Navajo country, and a landform deeply sacred to both cultures. The answer was simple. Build a coal-fired electrical generating station using coal from Black Mesa and send the electricity south to the pumping station on the eastern bank of Lake Havasu.

Floyd Dominy:  “The Bureau [of Reclamation] had been studying these means of supplying that water out of the Colorado River into Central Arizona.  Then we had determined that the water could be pumped out of Lake Havasu and carried across the country in lined canals, reaching Phoenix and Tucson.  Of course, we recognized that this is a very expensive project.

The compromise to building Bridge Canyon Dam was to build a huge coal-fired plant, partly underwritten by the Federal Government and the rest of it by the Salt River Project and other power users.  Power developers.  The pumping power to pump the water for the Central Arizona Project comes from this coal-fired plant.  You can visualize a plant that burns a trainload of coal a day–that is how big it is.  Two and a half million-kilowatt-capacity.  The Government invested in that proposal in order to have power for the Central Arizona Project.”

The power plant was to be constructed on the shores of Lake Powell near Page, Arizona. The coal was to be strip-mined from Black Mesa and transported via a specially constructed railroad extending from the north end of Black Mesa to the power plant at Lake Powell. The power plant was to become known as the Navajo Generating Station, and about 25% of the electricity generated there was to be used to power up the Central Arizona Project. This was yet another tidy political package dreamed up to foster growth for the sake of growth.

I’d caught wind of a proposed strip-mine some years earlier when I was spending a fair amount of time on the Navajo Reservation working on different projects. But it wasn’t until 1969 when a stout-hearted Park Service historian by the name of William Brown told me what he had come to learn through scuttlebutt leaked from the Department of the Interior. Bill told me about the proposed strip-mine, the coal-fired power plant, AND that water was to be pumped from the Pleistocene aquifer beneath Black Mesa to slurry coal to yet another existing power plant near Laughlin, Nevada.

Bill and I hopped in my old black Chevy carryall and headed out to Black Mesa. We drove the length of a bumpy dirt two-track road from the north end to the south end of Black Mesa and saw where the intended strip-mine was to be located. Thereafter, we rented a motor boat at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River and putted about 18 miles upstream through what little remained of Glen Canyon until we rounded a bend, and looked up into the face of the Glen Canyon Dam, the monster that stoppered the River–the flow of Nature through the North American Southwest. We were speechless. We were witness to that which symbolized the entry of the Southwest into what became known as the National Sacrifice Area. The magnitude of what was to ensue was beyond imagination.

Shortly thereafter, I went to visit an elderly Hopi friend whom I had known for some years. His name was David Monongye, and he lived in Hotevilla on Third Mesa. I told David what I had learned so far. He asked to me to stay until the following day. He contacted many other traditional Hopis, and the next day, we all met on Second Mesa. David introduced me and asked me to recount what I had told him the previous day. Thus, I repeated the dreary news that a coal strip-mine had been scheduled for Black Mesa, and that water was to be extracted at the rate of 2,000 gallons a minute to slurry coal 273 miles to the west to an existing power plant, and that a railroad was to be constructed to haul coal across the Kaibito Plateau that extended between Black Mesa and Page, Arizona. I told them that this was under contract between their Hopi Tribal Council chaired by Clarence Hamilton and the Peabody Coal Co. of East St. Louis with the blessing of the federal government. All 63 Hopis rose as a single body, each of them enraged, especially at their tribal council for selling out a sacred landform. For a few minutes, I thought violence might ensue—but it didn’t. They calmed down, and David introduced me to Thomas Banyacya who spoke fair English. There was discussion and Thomas turned to me and asked me on behalf of the traditional Hopis if I would help them get the message to the American public about the nature of this travesty. I agreed, and some days later back in Santa Fe, Bill Brown, Jim Hopper, and I founded the Black Mesa Defense Fund. Soon we were joined by Terry Moore, and thereafter by Tom Andrews.

Dave Brower and me looking at a stripmine in 1972 before we backpacked down Coyote Gulch in Utah. © Tom Pew

Dave Brower and me looking at a stripmine in 1972 before we backpacked down Coyote Gulch in Utah. © Tom Pew

For three years, we did our level best to halt the ‘rape of Black Mesa’. But we’d taken on the Central Arizona Project. We had brought the plight of the Hopis before the eyes of the American public. We vigorously fought coal-fired power plants in general. We were later called ‘radical environmentalists’ and even ‘eco-terrorists’. The truth is we were fighting federal and corporate eco-terrorism full tilt. Three years later when we realized that we were exhausted and in debt, we admitted that we’d lost that battle. But before we finally closed the doors to the Black Mesa Defense Fund for the last time, we paid off every cent of debt, and left as honorably as we could.

Only much later would I understand that the Law of the River was responsible for the Central Arizona Project, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and the flooding of Glen Canyon, and extreme population growth in the most arid part of North America. As Ed Abbey once said to me as we looked down on the Sonoran Desert from near our campsite in the Superstition Mountains, “The Central Arizona Project has led to the metastasis of Phoenix and Tucson.”

The Central Arizona Project cost about four billion dollars, far more than originally anticipated. The Colorado River water pumped so many miles from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson was too expensive for most farmers. Thus, many of them sold their land to developers and now vast spans of the beautiful, luxuriant, and fragile Sonoran Desert have been turned into money lining corporate and political pockets.

Dave Brower, by then head of Friends of the Earth, and I had become friends. At one point, we were part of a group of hikers who hiked down Coyote Gulch to the confluence with the Río Escalante. Beforehand, we spent time at different southwestern strip mines staring into the devastation. At one point, we were invited to an escorted (guarded) tour through part of the Four Corners Power Plant near Shiprock.

Thereafter, we camped together near the base of the mighty Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico that Dave had climbed in 1939 when he was twenty-seven years old. I interviewed Dave for a radio series I produced in 1986.

David Brower: “I kept learning.  I first thought that you could save a lot of rivers by going to nuclear power.  Then I found that was no good.  So I was willing to save rivers by going to coal and found that was no good.  And I finally smartened up and found out the way to save rivers and coal, and avoid nuclear power is to take a whole new look at our ideas about economic growth, and to ask the essential questions:  ‘What kind of economic growth must we have?  And what kind can we, and the Earth, no longer afford?’  And that is where my thinking has been ever since the Colorado River Project.”

The Peabody Coal Company created a huge strip mine that devastated much of Black Mesa. In so doing, it also wrought enormous damage to both Hopi and Navajo traditional cultures by eradicating systems of values based on living in harmony with Nature, and gravely endangering a level of indigenous mindedness without which our human species may not survive. And that has been the focus of much of my own work ever since the rape of Black Mesa.


The Moving Waters radio series was produced in 2001 and included everything mentioned above and far more. Twenty-one years have since passed since that series premiered. The good news is that the Navajo Generating Station is no more. The enormous smoke stacks that had spewed thousands of tons of ruinous pollutants into the once pellucid air of the North American Southwest were lawfully blown to smithereens with explosives on February 11, 2021, a sight that brought tears of joy to many of us who bear enduring love for this Earth. Terry Moore, Black Mesa Defense Fund stalwart, and author/adventurer Morgan Sjogren both sent me contrasting video clips of the event. I thought of Ed Abbey who would have cheered vigorously at the sight. I hope that his bones were able to spin in celebration in his hidden grave.

Now, one hundred years after the signing of the Colorado River Compact, Nature’s principles are visibly thwarting federal legislation. Global warming and climate instability have resulted in an enduring drought in the North American Southwest [the most severe in 1200 years]. The bottom line here is that there is not enough precipitation to meet the legislated annual quota of 16.5-million-acre feet to serve both the Upper and Lower Basins and Mexico, and there hasn’t been for several years. Both Lakes Mead and Powell have shrunk considerably. Lake Powell has a bathtub ring almost a hundred feet high, and Lake Mead is less than half-full. If the drought continues as predicted, the watershed will release less water into the Colorado River, and the two great reservoirs will continue to diminish, especially if both Upper and Lower Basins insist on taking their shares allocated a hundred years ago. There is a point known as dead pool when the water is too low to even turn the turbines that generate a significant proportion of electricity throughout the West. So far, that is not the case.

Legislators have been engaged in discussions to determine the feasibility of revised legislation. There has been talk of de-commissioning the Glen Canyon Dam so that the entire flow of the River would drain into Lake Mead. Upper Basin states are adamantly opposed to de-commissioning Glen Canyon Dam because that would inevitably deprive those states from developing as they would with a guarantee of 7.5-million-acre-feet to split up.  Already, agricultural and urban water users are vying for the water, especially in the region of Imperial Valley and southern Arizona. The complexity in economics is a fundamental issue.

Twenty years ago, the Colorado River served 25 million humans. Presently it serves 40 million humans. As human population increases, precipitation decreases due largely to climate change brought on by many factors including too much CO2 in the atmosphere, a fair proportion of which emanated from the great coal-fired electrical generating stations including the now defunct Navajo Generating Station.

In 2022 for the first time, Arizona will have to relinquish 500,000 acre-feet of its allocation so that California can take its apportioned share, Arizona being junior to California as determined in the Law of the River. Inter-basin transfers of water have also come into effect. For example, the San Juan-Chama Diversion that normally diverts 110,000-acre -feet of water through a 23-mile-long tunnel carved beneath the Continental Divide extending from the greater Colorado River Watershed into the Chama River, a major tributary of the Río Grande, puts Albuquerque in direct competition with Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson for Colorado River water. As New Mexico water attorney, scholar, and author, Em Hall so aptly pointed out in a recorded interview I conducted in 2010, “Albuquerque essentially has thrown itself into a common pot with Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and Los Angeles. Guess how they’re going to do when push comes to shove in that kind of world?”

At the same time, the Navajo Indians want to run a pipeline from Lake Powell inland to supplement their limited groundwater. Indians have prior water rights according to the Winter’s Doctrine of 1908. Never forget that for many years, the Peabody Coal Co. tapped the Navajo aquifer to the tune of 2,000 gallons a minute in order to slurry coal from Black Mesa strip-mine to the Mohave Generating station near Laughlin, Nevada to generate electricity to light up Las Vegas and other areas.

The citizens of Utah want to run a pipeline westward to St. George to provide that growing city with Colorado River water. The citizens of the Las Vegas area have created a deep pipeline from the bottom of Lake Mead to suck out the last drops of water when Mead runs dry. The common pot grows larger as water diminishes here in the Southwest.

Some traditional Indians continue to conceive of providing healthy habitat for their descendants seven generations hence. Healthy habitat includes all of the species—not just the human species—who live there.

Presently, over 80% of the human population of the United States live in urban environments. Others of us live in more rural environments. This must affect our perspective very deeply. We who live in rural habitats are aware of the wildlife, the diversity of flora and fauna that occur here naturally, especially if we allow our consciousness to extend beyond our personal agendas. Traditional indigenous peoples whose perspectives have not been subsumed by monoculture have a much broader view of the flow of Nature than most of the rest of us.

Sarah Natani is a Navajo weaver who has herded her sheep for many years near Table Mesa south of Shiprock, New Mexico. She recalls drinking water from the San Juan River during her younger days:

“Well, my uncle, his name was Ben D’datin, and he had a farm over there. There was a big ditch over there where they used to pump the water through there.  We got a bucket and drank that water, and none of us ever got sick from drinking that San Juan River. And I know that water is very precious to everybody, not only Navajos or white men or anybody. The Great Spirit has put the water there for us, to all share it, to use it. Not one person takes over the whole water.”

Vernon Masayesva is an educator and former tribal chairman for his Hopi people.  For decades, he has assiduously pursued protecting the waters both within and on the surface of his homeland.

 “I go to these meetings when they talk about the Colorado River. And they talk about the Law of the River and how all these people have an economic interest in it. They have a vested interest. They all look at the river as theirs. It is my river. That is the mentality. That is the mind-set. It is there for me to use. To exploit. To make more money. And I don’t want you taking it away from me. So they fight to keep it. It is their water. They forget that the river does not belong to us. That we belong to it. We don’t control the river. We think we do. We write laws about it. And it gives us a sense of ownership and control. It controls us. The river controls us. But we don’t look at it like that. My hope is that we would change that some way. And I think there is a way to still benefit from the river, to bring the health back to the river. We have taken so much of it. We have got to give something back. That is the Hopi way. Whatever you take, you always give back. You never just take, take, take. You don’t say, ‘I am separate from the plant or the animal or the stars.’ That is why in many of our kachina dances, when we participate with our ‘friends’ as we call them, we become those things. We have no problem with it. One day I am the moon. The next day I am the badger. I would transform into those things. And it just reinforces the feeling that we are in this interconnection here. We are not separate from Nature. We are all an integral part of it.”


Hegemony, oligarchy, plutocracy—the prevailing aristocracy that has long dominated so much of human cultural perspective through the millennia. Yet to me, the only true aristocracy is one of consciousness.

In consciousness we trust…

Spread Rewilding Around the Globe!
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