It may have been partly motivated by the need for a vacation that Utah lawyers and attorneys from Colorado, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming met with Las Vegas attorneys at the Red Rock Casino and Spa recently. A water-rights lawyer from California called the conference an “intellectual jousting” event for the participants. But the recent meeting of lawyers and law students in Las Vegas as part of an American Bar Association conference had serious undertones in implications for the future of over 40 million people who depend on the water from the Colorado River, reports this article from the Albuquerque Journal online.
Debating what role the federal government has (and should take) in mediating the water usage rights between the seven states, Las Vegas lawyers emphasized its recycling priorities (like how the iconic dancing Bellagio’s fountains use recycled water) and its continual need to draw on water from Lake Mead supplied by the Hoover Dam’s welling of the Colorado river. Utah lawyers and those from California also commented on the need to adequately mete out water for the tribal nations who live in the river’s valley and depend on its flow for sustaining their way of life.
Whether the federal government should be “like that of a marriage counselor, encouraging commitments between states,” or that of “a gorilla in the room” to reach agreements was hotly debated between the Utah lawyers, law professors from New Mexico, and vocal water rights Las Vegas attorneys. The water basins’ allocation and distribution, now, is based on a so-called “law of the river” compact reached with federal oversight in 1922, but it may not be enough to meet the needs of that area of the U.S. and their growing collective thirst.
Demand for the Colorado River may outstrip supply in 20 years or less, according to some estimates. Some Las Vegas attorneys are insisting that the federal government be more “hands off,” and let states come to their own agreements about how to divide up the river’s gifts, with the feds occupying “a ministerial role as a mere hauler and carrier of water with no authority to manage and regulate.” Others, such as lawyers remembering tribal nations’ disproportionately underrepresented legal interests in state negotiations, insist that that the federal government’s funds and management are more necessary.
Utah lawyers called for “parties to cooperate and compromise” on the issues affecting the states’ water basins, and the 150 attorneys present at the conference seemed to at least agree on the one fact: there will soon not be enough water. The fact that the conference was held in the desert city packed with lights and tourists, and seemingly well-supplied with water served to underscore the point that many Las Vegas attorneys wanted to make during the conference: all this could be gone. The reality is that the Colorado River is a limited resource, and with population growth, even with water conservation measures, we might all be in trouble, and more quickly than we think. For now, though a round of blackjack or poker might have been a welcome distraction from the mammoth task to be at hand all too soon.