A social contract on water use in the Colorado River Basin is needed — this time one between cities and rural areas — as the Colorado River Compact approaches its second century, a University of New Mexico professor said Thursday.
"We need to rethink the social contract on how we manage the (Colorado) River," John Fleck told more than 100 people at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum at Colorado Mesa University on Thursday.
Despite being based on "bad science," the original contract is the 1922 compact among seven states and the federal government that shaped the way the southwest has developed, Fleck said.
Fleck studies the workings of science and political and policy processes and is the author of the 2016 book, "Water is For Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West."
The authors of the 1922 agreement relied on estimates that oversold the amount of water in the Colorado River system, Fleck said.
"We built a lot of stuff based on old, bad science," Fleck said.
Science, however, also is changing the how water use is understood, he said.
While it has become more clear over decades that the water available in the 108,000 square-mile basin, it's becoming clear that the demand for water also was overstated, Fleck said.
Even as the population of the basin has grown — the river is now a source of water for 49 million people — economies and populations also have grown.
That trend is evident from Albuquerque to Denver and Los Angeles to Phoenix, Fleck said.
"Everybody is using less water," even as gross regional products are on the rise, he said, noting that water use in the upper Colorado River basin is lower now than its was in the 1980s.
"This suggests that (growth in the face of scarcity) is a real phenomenon," Fleck said.
That's true for agriculture, as well as municipal and industrial use, he said.
It's important to better understand the realities of how water is used, especially in the face of scarcity, Fleck said, noting that fights already are breaking out in California between rural and urban water users.
"Otherwise, the risk is that rich and politically powerful cities" such as Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and others "will start throwing sharp elbows" at rural water-rights holders as the cities search for water to meet the supposed needs of growing populations, Fleck said. "That sends a really wrong and dangerous message."
Any new social contract use on water management also should take into account the segments of American society that were ignored the last go-round, he said, pointing to the Navajo and other tribes whose water needs weren't included in the 1922 pact.