Explosive growth in several Western states that depend on the Colorado River for water could threaten allocations to upstream states with slower growth, a Wyoming water official said.
Wyoming uses only about half the 1.2 million acre-foot allocation of Colorado River water it is allowed under a seven-state pact dividing the river's flow.But lower basin states are using virtually all their appropriated water and are scrambling for a greater share.
"Our position is we want the lower basin states to solve the problems in the lower basin," Wyoming state Engineer Jeff Fassett said. "Our view is that they can. We closely monitor what's going on and participate where we can to make sure they're working on those issues."
In 1922, when the river's flow was divided among Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, nobody envisioned the runaway growth that is now occurring in transformed desert areas of Nevada and Arizona.
California officials, however, recognized the growth potential of the Los Angeles area. The Colorado River Aqueduct, completed in 1941, delivers water from the river and other sources to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which distributes water to 27 water districts covering 300 communities and 16 million people.
Under the 1922 "Law of the River," which has been modified several times, the upper basin states, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet annually to the lower basin states. The same amount is allocated to the upper basin states.
Later agreements and court decrees divided those amounts among the various states.
Fassett said while Wyoming at present cannot use its entire allocation, it makes sense to work to ensure the state does not give up water rights to other states.
Gov. Jim Geringer and the governors of Colorado and New Mexico are trying to discourage Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt from acting on a legislative resolution to pursue leasing some of Utah's unused river appropriation to Nevada.
"The biggest risk is that you create a dependency," Geringer said. "If leasing were legal and we were to lease water to a lower basin state, then we create an expectancy of continuation.
"The courts would look back and say, `You didn't really want the water, you were just trying to make money off it,' " he added.
Meanwhile, Geringer and Fassett said they expected Wyoming to begin to see increased growth as growing populations in Utah's Salt Lake Valley and Colorado's Front Range begin to spill over into Wyoming.
Geringer's office and the Wyoming Water Development Association have scheduled a June 17 seminar in Cheyenne to study various aspects of state water policy to help ensure the state will be able to handle that growth.
"Wyoming has never really had a plan for the future to develop Wyoming," said Dan Budd of Big Piney, a former legislator who served on the Upper Colorado River Commission for more than 20 years.
Budd, who pushed for successful legislation requiring annual updates on water projects involving the Colorado River in Wyoming, said if the state's appropriation of the river's flow cannot be used within the Wyoming portion of the Colorado River Basin, it should be diverted to other parts of the state.
"I'd rather use the water in Wyoming, including trans-basin diversion," he said. "I know in some circles that's a pretty bad word, but I would rather build the economy in the state of Wyoming."
Fassett, however, said the expense of obtaining permits for and constructing such projects can be prohibitive.
"So the reality is the development of our in-basin needs - the towns and potential industrial growth in Rock Springs," he said.