The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1976, Volume 22, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor


David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Water and the West: The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West. By Norris Hundley, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 417 pages. $20.00.

Reviewed by Lawrence B. Lee, Professor of History, San Jose State University.

This absorbing historical monograph describes the origins and implementation of the famous Colorado River Compact which headed off one of those legendary Western water wars with a “treaty” that divided the waters of the Colorado River “equitably” between upper and lower basin states and brought Hoover Dam into being. The adversaries in the potential war were: (1) the upper basin states, which anticipated that, under the water law doctrine of “prior appropriation,” they would lose coveted water rights for irrigation agriculture even though they were the states of origin for most of the Colorado River flow; (2) California reclamation interests in Imperial Valley, which desired flood control benefits as well as an All American Canal; (3) Los Angeles commercial interests and city bureaucrats who sought new sources of domestic water and electric power; (4) in addition, the federal Reclamation Service under director Arthur Powell Davis sought to erect a giant multi-purpose dam at Boulder Canyon which would serve California’s interests and ostensibly give Arizona and Nevada their fair share of Colorado River benefits.

This narrative is of particular interest to the residents of metropolitan San Diego because San Diego leaders were in at the beginning with the formation of the League of the Southwest. Also Hoover Dam and the auxiliary infrastructure have provided the water and power resource base for San Diego and Southern California’s spectacular growth since World War II days. The League of the Southwest, the brainchild of San Diego promoter Arnold Kruckman, launched its developmental program for the Southwestern states with a gala convention at the Hotel del Coronado in November, 1917. The fourth meeting (Denver) of the League, now a single-issue organization dedicated to the development of the Colorado River, was the occasion for Colorado lawyer Delph Carpenter’s proposal that the Colorado River states create a compact or interstate treaty under Article I Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution. Ingenuity and a spirit of compromise distinguished the settlement of these knotty issues. The famed Santa Fe conference (1922) that put the Compact together under the leadership of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover proved successful when the delegates agreed on a formula for dividing the waters. The upper basin states finally guaranteed that a minimum of 7,500,000 acre-feet of the Colorado water would be available annually for the downriver states. Then the upper basin states persuaded California to accept a fixed proportion of this amount, pegged at 4,400,000 acre-feet, in the Boulder Canyon Project Act (1928) which authorized Hoover Dam.

The long term results of this experiment in interstate cooperation have proved to be spectacularly successful with the construction of Hoover Dam, then Parker Dam, the Metropolitan Water District’s aqueduct and the completion of the All American Canal. Currently, the average Californian cognizant of the Colorado River epic assumes the vision of the authors of the Compact was 20/20 and right on the mark. Norri Hundley, however, points up paradoxical developments never envisioned in the 1920s, Arizona seemingly could not rely on the compact to get its fair share of lower basin water and resorted to endless litigation, concluding with the Supreme Court decision in Arizona vs. California (1963) which finally set limits to California’s enormous thirst for Colorado waters. Ironically the Compact sought to prevent litigation through cooperation. Furthermore, this decision found the Supreme Court taking liberties with the history of Western water law and decreeing that Congress could apportion water among the states, even allowing Federal claims to unappropriated waters within the states. Incidentally this judgment provoked today’s states rights conflict between the California Water Project and the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation. Nor did the vision of the 1920s encompass contemporary excessive demands of water to meet Indian claims or to assure Colorado River purity in Baja California. The future holds further impossible drafts upon the waters of the Colorado to meet the hydraulic needs of the oil shale and coal mining industries, as well as power generating plants. Then too, the claims of the burgeoning metropolitan areas in all three lower Colorado River states will be immense.

This is an impressive contribution to the growing body of historical literature dealing with arid land reclamation and water resources. Hundley’s scholarship is outstanding and the documentary underpinnings are monumental. The scholarly apparatus does not interfere with the clearly delineated narrative, heightened by dramatic biographical sketches of the actors in the unfolding plot. Hundley’s single greatest achievement is his discovery of the Supreme Court in historical error in the Arizona vs. California decision. His most relevant contribution is his exposure of the Colorado River Commissioners’ myopia respecting Indians and environmental claims.