Lawyer, state senator, and interstate streams commissioner, Delph E. Carpenter (1877-1951) had lasting impact on Colorado and the western United States through his concept of river compacts. In persuading other states to negotiate the first interstate river-sharing agreement, Carpenter was attempting both to secure Colorado’s water supply for future generations and to reduce litigation between states. His most significant achievement, the Colorado River Compact, stands as the foundation of interstate water law in the West.
Raised on his family’s irrigated farm northwest of Greeley, Carpenter experienced the difficulties of Colorado water issues firsthand. His Union Colony pioneer parents, Leroy and Martha, scratched a living out of the arid land with their three boys: Alfred Bennett, Delphus Emory, and Fred George.
After graduating from Greeley High School in 1896, Carpenter enrolled in the University of Denver, earning his law degree in 1899. He soon returned to Greeley to set up practice. In 1901, Carpenter married high school classmate Michaela “Dot” Hogarty and raised three daughters and one son with her.
Though Carpenter had an early interest in water law, he initially accepted any available legal work. His efforts to settle livestock disputes, examine land titles, and fulfill other legal needs of a growing agricultural town supported his family. In 1907 he took a case defending an accused murderer, in part to boost his career with the inevitable publicity. By convincing the jury that the accused had acted in self-defense, Carpenter won the case.
Carpenter parlayed the name recognition he gained from the win into a successful bid for the Colorado Senate. He ran as a Republican in 1908 and became the first native-born Coloradan elected to the state senate. In his single term in office, he served as head of a special committee to investigate the status of Colorado’s surface water, with a particular focus on interstate streams. His resulting report showed his full support for the Colorado Doctrine of prior appropriation and his advocacy for states’ rights.
Carpenter saw that Colorado, as a headwaters state, stood vulnerable to any downstream development. With neighboring states and the federal government seeking to develop significant amounts of arid land for agriculture and settlement, Colorado’s water would be in high demand beyond its borders. Carpenter’s senate work invigorated his lifelong determination to defend Colorado’s water rights from any encroachments.
Carpenter became more deeply involved in defending Colorado’s water as the attorney for the Greeley-Poudre Irrigation District. The district angered Wyoming by constructing a tunnel to divert water from the northbound Laramie River into the nearby Greeley-bound Cache la Poudre River. Wyoming sued Colorado over this diversion in 1911. Carpenter, appointed the lead defense attorney for the state, argued the case twice before the US Supreme Court, which in 1922 decided in Wyoming’s favor.
Interstate Streams Commissioner
Carpenter learned important lessons during the Wyoming v. Colorado battle and concurrent interstate cases. He observed Colorado’s perpetual risk of losing interstate stream conflicts if federal courts decided how to divide the waters. He recognized that if states negotiated agreements, Supreme Court trials might be avoided.
In a 1920 meeting of the League of the Southwest, Carpenter brought forward his idea for the seven Colorado River Basin states to negotiate a compact, a multi-state, Congressionally approved treaty allowed by the US Constitution. He wanted the compact to specify how the states would share the Colorado River and its tributaries. At the time, California was advocating for a large dam and diversion canal from the river, and other states feared this could lead to federal interference and diminished water rights within their own borders. If the Supreme Court applied prior appropriation across state lines and California claimed water first, slower developing states would lose out.
Carpenter represented Colorado on the Colorado River Commission, which met first in January 1922. Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California also sent commissioners; Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover represented the federal government. Commission meetings took place throughout the year, with Carpenter’s drafts both inspiring and resolving debates. The commissioners signed the final compact on November 24. Though it took more than two decades for all of the states to ratify the compact, this was the first time so many states agreed on how to share the waters of an interstate stream.
Other compacts followed, with Carpenter negotiating the South Platte River Compact between Colorado and Nebraska just five months later. He also pursued compacts on the La Plata, Arkansas, Laramie, North Platte, Rio Grande, and Republican rivers, though some never came to fruition. Carpenter carried out this work of defending Colorado’s water resources despite rapidly failing health beginning in the mid-1920s. Suffering with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, he was assisted by his wife while bedridden for over two decades.
Motivated by pioneering parents and early legal experiences, Delph Carpenter dedicated his life to resolving interstate water conflicts in the best interests of Colorado. In drafting, negotiating, and advocating for the Colorado River Compact and other interstate water compacts that followed, he set the arid West on a new course of cooperation instead of direct litigation.
Though interstate litigation still occurs, even on streams where compacts exist, Carpenter’s concept of compacts paved the way for similar innovative ideas related to water management. In 2005, the Colorado legislature passed the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, which created an Interbasin Compact Committee. For legislators seeking a new way to cooperate within the state’s borders, Carpenter’s compacts provided inspiration.