Background readings on Western water

Here are some helpful online resources for learning more about the Colorado River Basin and Western water issues.

On this page:

1922 Colorado River Compact

The 1922 Colorado River Compact is just four pages, but this critical document sets the river’s total supply at 15 million acre feet per year, defines the states that make up the upper and lower basins, allocates 7.5 million acre feet per basin annually, and introduces the legal framework for Mexico’s future allotment.

Signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

1922 Colorado River Compact Meeting Transcripts

To finalize the 1922 compact, it took Herbert Hoover, then the Secretary of Commerce, and representatives from each of the seven basin states, 27 different meetings, spanning four different cities and 11 months. This series of documents provides a transcript for those discussions as well as other interesting anecdotes related to the deliberations that culminated in the final agreement.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment report on the Southwest

Since 2000, the federal government has released an interagency report quantifying the effects of climate change on humans and the environment. This chapter of the fourth edition of the report, released in November 2018, focuses specifically on the U.S. Southwest and discusses impacts on water resources.

Colorado River Water Users Association

CRWUA describes itself as “a non-profit, non-partisan organization providing a forum for exchanging ideas and perspectives on Colorado River use and management with the intent of developing and advocating common objectives, initiatives and solutions.” The group offers a timeline summarizing the Law of the River and runs an annual conference on the Colorado River.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation: Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin Water Resources Pages

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation is the primary federal agency responsible for managing water infrastructure along the Colorado River. Reclamation’s website provides historical information, contact lists, photography databases and other resources. These sites are also the official source for water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the biggest reservoirs along the Colorado River.

U.S. Department of Interior: Colorado River Basin Drought Page

This site offers an overview of the Colorado River and explores the ongoing drought in the region. The project, which was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation in support of the Department of the Interior’s Open Water Data Initiative, offers a variety of data visualizations, imagery and other tools for understanding drought’s effects on the river.

U.S. Drought Monitor

Every Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor releases a map showing the areas of the country that are currently in various stages of drought. The product is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This site also provides GIS data, historical drought information and useful visualizations to compare maps over time.

(See our drought dashboard for one use of this data.)

U.S. Geological Survey: Water Use in the United States

In 2015, water use in the United States was around 322 billion gallons per day. This report provides data and details on how all of that water was used and trends since 1950.

U.S. Geological Survey: Water Science School

The USGS offers helpful primers on water science, the hydrologic cycle, water quality and how water is used. The site includes maps, data, multimedia and other resources.

Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center

This water program of the California-focused think tank offers a number of helpful fact sheets and other publications on water issues in California.

Water Education Colorado

Water Education Colorado provides nine citizen’s guides on water topics, including the law, conservation, quality and supply. This site is also the home of Fresh Water News and Headwaters Magazine.

Water Education Foundation

The Water Education Foundation offers a water encyclopediaphotosvideos, historical timelines and a tool for Californians to determine the source of their water. This site is also home to Western Water.

Academic organizations

There are a number of university-based programs and projects that focus on water issues and the Colorado River Basin:

Do you know of other resources on the web that would be helpful for water journalists and others? Please contact us so we can consider including them on this page.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We're an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative.