Lawmakers dreaming of cash windfalls from selling Utah's unused portion of the Colorado River got a wake-up call last week. There simply may not be that much water available.
If you subtract Utah's water needs over the next 50 years from its share of the river water, only about 110,000 acre-feet of water remains unused - about 8 percent of the state's 1.4 million acre-feet annual share.And there are no guarantees the state won't need that excess at some time.
"That's why we are looking at leasing the water, not marketing it," said Larry Anderson, director of the state Division of Water Resources. "There will come a time when we need that water."
State officials, at the direction of the Legislature and Gov. Mike Leavitt, have initiated a study on the feasibility of leasing a portion of Utah's Colorado River water to thirsty downstream states like Arizona and California. The proposal is controversial and other upper Colorado River Basin states with excess water have been less than enthusiastic about the concept.
But even at 110,000 acre-feet, Anderson said, the state has a valuable resource that is flowing to downstream users with no compensation to the state. Just how much that water is worth is anybody's guess.
Currently, water sells for $400 to $800 an acre-foot, but that is water delivered to the users. The Utah water would be undeveloped, greatly diminishing its value.
And there is the question whether downstream states would pay for something they are getting for free now. And how willing would they be to build dams, pipelines and aqueducts to deliver the water if they were guaranteed water for only 50 or 75 years? Probably not very if only Utah's 110,000 acre-feet of water is at stake. But if other upper basin states like Wyoming and Colorado and various American Indian tribes with water rights all agreed to bank their shares of unused water and then lease to downstream states, water development would be more feasible.
Currently the downstream states of California, Arizona and Nevada are guaranteed a minimum of 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water.
Downstream states could be pressured to negotiate a deal with Utah only if Utah actually had plans to develop and utilize the its share of the water, thereby diminishing the water now available to the downstream states.
"The agreement (with downstream states) could be a kind of forbearance whereby the state agrees not to pursue certain (water development) projects for the next 50 or 100 years and agrees to continue to let that water go downstream," Anderson said.
Currently, the state uses about 857,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water a year with 512,000 acre-feet going downstream unused. Anderson told the Legislature's Energy and Natural Resources Committee that long-range water plans call for the state to increase its use of the river water by almost 50 percent.
Among the developments that will utilize Colorado River water over the next 50 years:
- A water pipeline from Lake Powell to the St. George area.
- Increased water use due to oil and gas development in northeastern Utah.
- Completion of the Central Utah Project.
- Expansion of Utah power plants.
Laws regulating water rights on the Colorado River are unusually complex, and no one knows for sure what Utah can and cannot do to lease water to downstream states.
The Colorado River is the nation's sixth largest in terms of water volume at 17.5 million acre-feet per year. The river basin covers 224,000 square miles in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, California and in northern Mexico.
Some 20 million people depend on Colorado River water, most of them in Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.