ST. GEORGE — A new study released earlier this week claims that Utah is overusing its Colorado River allotment. If true, this could result in cuts to the state’s use of the river, along with two other states the study also claims are taking more water than they have a right to.
Water conservationists who support the study’s findings have expressed hope that it will lead to the end of the Lake Powell Pipeline and other proposed diversions on the Colorado River.
Sponsored by the Utah Rivers Council and titled “A Future on Borrowed Time,” the report claims that three of the four Upper Colorado River Basin states – Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, but not Wyoming – are using more water than legally allowed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Under the compact, the Upper Colorado River Basin states are allowed the “leftovers” of the Colorado River after obligations to the Lower Basin are met. Of that amount, Utah is entitled to 23% – approximately 1.725 million acre-feet – of the Colorado River. An acre-foot of water is approximately 325,000 gallons, which is estimated to be two household’s worth of water use in a year.
According to state and local water managers, the state has yet to fully develop its rights to the river. The state is currently using about 1 million acre-feet annually, according to a statement from the Utah Governor’s Office.
If Utah has additional water rights yet to develop, state officials say Utah is within its rights to pursue the Lake Powell Pipeline. The pipeline, which will run 140 miles from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County, would divert an estimated 86,000 acre-feet of water to the county. Water managers say the secondary source of water is needed to help support the continuing growth of Washington County into the future.
The Utah Rivers Council’s study specifically points to the pipeline as a “good example of a bad idea threatening other water users.”
The pipeline is considered the largest diversion presently proposed for the Colorado River and threatens to take even more water Utah is not truly entitled to, according to the study.
Over the last 20 years as drought and a changing climate have continued to plague the West, the flow of the Colorado River has shrunk nearly 20%. Average river flow in the 20th century was estimated to be 15.2 million acre-feet, while 21st century flows are at around 12.4 million, according to the study.
This equates to a 500,000 acre-foot deficit in the Upper Basin that could lead to the Lower Basin states demanding that the Upper Basin states contributing to the problem cut their water use, which they have the right to do under the Colorado River Compact.
The study goes on to state that future declines to the river could be as high as 30-40%.
“Water leaders need to either stop denying that the Colorado River has dropped 20%, or they need to be replaced with professionals who embrace science and want to protect existing water users, instead of endangering them by proposing new water diversions amidst a declining supply,” Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said in a press release.
Lack of snowpack during the 2019-20 winter season was particularly low, leading to federal water managers declaring the first water shortage for the Colorado River.
The declaration triggered forthcoming cuts in the river water use for some Lower Basin states and Mexico. Arizona will see an 18% reduction, which translates to around 512,000 acre-feet of water. Those anticipated to be the most impacted by the cuts will be the state’s farmers. Nevada will see a 7% reduction at 21,000 acre-feet, and Mexico will have its share reduced by 5%, or 80,000 acre-feet.
California is presently unaffected by the cuts due to having senior water rights to the Colorado River as opposed to the other states and Mexico.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, have also shrunk in capacity over the years as the seasonal snowpack that generally lends to their refilling has declined. Lowering water levels at the reservoirs pose pending issues for hydroelectric power generation at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.
Despite the evidence of decreasing flows on the Colorado River over the last two decades, conservationists say regional officials are denying the truth of the situation and either going on old data that is no longer accurate or outright denying climate change impacts in general.
“Upper Basin water leaders have refused to accept forty years of science demonstrating that climate change is shrinking the Colorado River,” John Weisheit, conservation director Living Rivers, Colorado River Waterkeeper, said in a press release accompanying the study. “It’s time to stop pretending that shortages in the Upper Basin are not coming, they are here now.”
The study likened the issue to a family living on a savings account – with certain family members not realizing the account has been shrinking over time due to their use of it:
The Colorado River is like a household income source and the reservoirs are like a huge savings account. For the last 20 years, the household’s income has declined and the residents of the house have been living off their savings. Yet some house residents don’t realize they have been slowly draining their savings account?
Weisheit, along with Frankel and others representing conservation groups across the West such as the WildEarth Guardians, Great Basin Water Network, Living Rivers/Colorado Riverkeeper and Center for Biological Diversity held a press conference Monday concerning the study’s findings.
The overall growth across the Colorado River Basin region was blasted by Robin Silver, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity. He said the Lower Basin states used 1 million acre-feet more than they were supposed to annually, which he said has led to the extinction or near-extinction of certain fish species native to the river.
“And Arizona’s answer? Continue growing at a nonsustainable rate, inadequate conservation efforts and return to groundwater pumping, which is also not sustainable,” Silver said.
A representative from Mexico, Margarita Diaz, executive director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, the Tijuana Waterkeeper, was also present during the press conference. She said it is not only the Basin states that rely on the Colorado River.
“The State of Baja California in Mexico depends heavily on Colorado River water, and these water cuts mean less water for drinking, hygiene and other essential human needs,” Diaz said. “We need to create a plan to ensure our people have the essential water they need to survive our climate change crisis.”
In response to the Utah Rivers Council’s study, a joint statement was released from the Upper Colorado River Commissioners and Utah Department of Natural Resources:
The Upper Colorado River Commissioners have stated: ‘The Upper Division States are well aware of their rights and obligations under the Law of the River. There are challenges across the Colorado River Basin, and we are committed, as we have been for years, to advancing sustainable solutions.’
A draft report released (Monday) questions Colorado River usage by some upper division states including Utah. We are currently reviewing the draft report and the data upon which the report is based.
We acknowledge the hydrology has changed, and we are committed to live within our means.
We are currently using the latest technology to better understand our use. We are evaluating additional water-use efficiencies throughout the Colorado River system in Utah including the utilization of more water reuse and recycling technologies, encouraging the adoption of water efficiency standards by cities and towns, increased conservation efforts by all users, additional on-farm conservation measures and optimization projects, and evaluating our current water accounting practices.
The State of Utah is keenly aware of the current drought and its effects on the Colorado River. Because Utah and its citizens are among the millions who share the river, the Utah Department of Natural Resources and Utah’s Colorado River Authority are carefully analyzing how drought and a changing climate may impact Utah and its water projects into the future.
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