Law Of The River: The Future of Interstate Compacts in the American West

April 21, 2014
Water in the West

Water in the West and partners convened a panel of experts with extensive experience in interstate river disputes to provide perspectives on the past, present, and future of interstate compacts in the management of rivers and water in the west at the Stanford Law School on April 17, 2014.

With only a few exceptions, most of the major river systems of the Western United States flow between more than one state. Although western water law is administered at the state level, disputes between the states over transboundary waters have to be resolved at the federal level, either by Congress or the Supreme Court or both. One of the most common tools to resolve such conflicts have been interstate compacts, agreements between the states that also must be approved by Congress under Article I, section 10 of the Constitution.  Today, there are 26 interstate compacts. Because most of these agreements were negotiated decades ago, none anticipated some of the changing realities that now affect their implementation – population shifts, economic transformation, new technologies, ecological concerns, climate change. There are serious concerns about how well these compacts will hold up to emerging influences. In addition, the compacts themselves have become the subject of considerable dispute, and many interstate water disputes before the Supreme Court now involve litigation over the meaning of previously settled compacts. 


Buzz Thompson David J. Hayes Burke Griggs

– Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute. Professor Thompson is a leading scholar in water law.  He is also the chairman of the board of the Resources Legacy Fund and the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, a California trustee for The Nature Conservancy, and a board member of both the American Farmland Trust and the Sonoran Institute. Professor Thompson serves as Special Master to the U.S. Supreme Court in litigation between Montana and Wyoming over the Yellowstone River compact. Professor Thompson will provide his perspectives on the judiciary’s role in interstate water disputes.

- Visiting Lecturer, Stanford Law School. Professor Hayes served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior from 1997 – 2001 and from 2009 – 2013. In his capacity as Deputy Secretary, David J. Hayes was often called upon to serve as the lead negotiator for the Department, and had a significant role in negotiations over the Colorado River Compact and other interstate water disputes. He is currently a distinguished visiting lecturer at Stanford Law School and a Senior Fellow at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  Professor Hayes will share his experiences with the federal government’s role in interstate river management.

- Consulting Professor at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Professor Griggs serves as Assistant Attorney General for the state of Kansas. In that capacity he represents the state in two ongoing disputes with Nebraska and Colorado over interstate compacts on the Republican and Platte Rivers. Professor Griggs will share his perspectives on the role of states in the past, present, and future of interstate water disputes and river compacts.

- Leon Szeptycki – Executive Director for the Water In the West Program and Professor of the Practice at the Stanford Woods Institute. Professor Szeptycki is an attorney who specializes in water quality, water use and watershed restoration. His work includes issues related to stream flow restoration in the context of the western appropriative rights system and increasing human demands on water. Over his career, Professor Szeptycki’s research has included a broad range of matters related to the restoration of river health and water quality on landscape scale. He will be the moderator for the discussion.

Sponsor: Water in the West, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Bill Lane Center for the American West and Stanford Law School