On September 15, four scholars gathered at The University of Texas at Austin for a roundtable discussion on the history and continued impact of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The discussion, “Overallocated and Unsettled: Critical Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the Colorado River,” was hosted by the Institute for Historical Studies, and featured Andrew Curley, assistant professor of geography, development, and environment at the University of Arizona and member of the Navajo Nation; Teresa Montoya, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago and member of the Navajo Nation; and Traci Voyles, professor and chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at The University of Oklahoma. The discussion was moderated by Erika Bsumek, professor of history at UT Austin.
The roundtable examined whose rights the compact ignored or denied and attempted to recenter the colonial roots of the Colorado River’s contemporary crisis. Through their discussion on the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the speakers explored contemporary water access policy, what they termed “settler” and Indigenous resource ideology, and the use of framing to shape and control narratives of crisis.
Following an introduction by Bsumek, Montoya began the roundtable event by speaking to the compact’s historical context. In 1922, representatives of U.S. states whose territory fell within the drainage basin of the Colorado River — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, and California — met to negotiate access to the river’s water. Their agreement, the Colorado River Compact, divided the water into two basins and allocated a share of water to each. However, Montoya explained, the compact allocated more water than actually existed, setting the stage for continuous overconsumption of the river’s water. She also noted that throughout the discussions that shaped the compact, considerations of Indigenous water access were overlooked or ignored, and Basin Tribes were not included in the compact’s construction.
Montoya also touched on contemporary debates over water access policy, building off of the 1908 Winters decision, a U.S Supreme Court case which ensured water rights for use by reservations. She contrasted this century-old ruling with the March 2023 Arizona v. Navajo Nation Supreme Court decision, which found that “the United States has no affirmative duty to ensure water access to the Navajo Nation.” This decision, she said, continues the legacy of the Colorado River Compact by delegating contemporary questions of water access from the federal government to the basin states.
Curley spoke next and highlighted the ways in which settler perspectives shape media portrayals of climate change and the Colorado River. He introduced this point with an exploration of crisis and drought narratives surrounding the river and its water, particularly in the lower basin states. While contemporary crisis narratives focus on climate change-related drought and water cuts, Curley said, crises of access to the Colorado River and its tributaries for Basin Tribes pre-date narratives of climate change. “There’s an ontology of resource use at work that continually outstrips the availability of the resources to supply what they’re asking,” Curley said. “That’s why we need to think about this as a colonial crisis and not simply a climate crisis.” Dr. Curley suggested that these concerns should prompt a shift in settler resource use and encourage Indigenous values of connection with nature.
Expanding from Curley’s remarks, Voyles spoke about the widespread understanding of the Colorado River crisis as an issue of climate change-induced drought and explained that this narrative obscures the historical context and consequences of settler-made lakes and dams. Using California’s Salton Sea as her example, Voyles argued that “the consequences of settler colonial management or mismanagement of landscapes and water resources has been a catastrophe for a very long time.” In the early 1900s the Salton Sea formed from a breached irrigation canal built to divert water from the Colorado River. Since its formation, the sea has been sustained by water runoff from nearby agricultural areas. The toxicity of this runoff has caused a widely recognized ecological disaster, Voyles said, including massive bird and fish die-offs and an abundance of toxic playa dust. “These kinds of environmental catastrophes flow along with these histories of settler mismanagement,” Voyles said.
For the future of this discussion, Montoya, Curley, Voyles, and Bsumek are working on an interdisciplinary collection of work focused around the Colorado River. The edited volume will connect the Colorado River Crisis to colonial impositions and emphasize the use of crisis narratives as a reasoning for settler disruption. The editors are soliciting contributions to the collection from various fields and aim to promote an Indigenous-centered vision of the Compact’s historical and present impact.