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The Great Salt Lake and Colorado River are at a pivotal crossroad

Utah Water Symposium highlights successes, but underscores challenges

SHARE The Great Salt Lake and Colorado River are at a pivotal crossroad
The Colorado River cuts a channel through sediment where Lake Powell has receded in southern Utah on July 22, 2022.

The Colorado River cuts a channel through sediment where Lake Powell has receded in southern Utah on July 22, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Is the glass half full or is it half empty?

In a reality that involves the Great Salt Lake shrinking to its lowest historical level a year ago and the Colorado River struggling to meet the demands of more than 40 million people and close to five million acres of irrigated farmland, as well as power supply from Glen Canyon Dam, it appears the glass is draining fast.

Consider that the entire Colorado River Basin — which serves seven states in the West, Mexico and more than 30 Native American tribes — has an economic value of $1.4 trillion.

Also consider that the Colorado River supplies one third of Utah’s water, supports 26% of its agriculture and provides drinking water for 1.3 million people in Utah.

At the Utah Water Symposium in Orem hosted by the Utah House of Representatives on Thursday, Amy Hass said in one respect, a compact forged 100 years ago was set up to disappoint.

Hass, who is executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, said when the compact was approved, the flows in the Colorado River were around 18 million acre-feet of water. Today? That available resource sits at about 12 million-acre feet.

When you add to that a growing population, increasing energy demands and new diversions, it’s easy to see why the operating guidelines currently in place into 2026 will be revamped by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. No one is quite sure what the revisions will mean and how things will look going into the future in an uncertain climate complicated by environmental obligations and economic factors.

The Upper Basin states — Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico — have never failed to meet deliveries of available water of 7.5 million-acre feet a year to their sister states. Additional water has long been sent downstream — to the benefit of states in the Lower Basin: Nevada, California and Arizona.

Again, consider that Lake Powell in 1999 was 92% full. In 2022, it was 26% full.

The federal government and other players in the game took drastic steps to keep Lake Powell at an amount of water to continue to generate power from the Glen Canyon Dam.

Under an agreement, 588,000 acre-feet of water was siphoned off Flaming Gorge.

But Hass said some of that water went on to help Lake Mead and those Lower Basin states.

“Lake Powell was not intended to suffer,” she said, adding that will change. “It’s go time.”

Hass said the “structural deficit” on the Colorado River is about 1.6 million acre-feet of water due to overuse in the Lower Basin states.

Hass said this sets up a tricky situation.

“The Lower Basin uses just under 10 million acre-feet and the Upper Basin uses an average of about 4.5 million acre-feet per year with the notable exception of 2021 where our use was about 3.5 million acre-feet.”

Lake Mead is the largest human-made reservoir in the United States, followed by Lake Powell.

Hass said the Lower Basin states have been able to maintain their hydrological conditions due to current management of the river.

“While they are draining Lake Mead, they are also pulling (down) Lake Powell along with it,” she said. “This, perversely, is allowed under the current criteria governing the river.”

As states move forward toward the 2026 negotiations on the operating guidelines on the river, Hass said the Upper Basin states have a keen interest in hanging onto their water.

“Keeping that water upstream largely to the benefit of the Upper Basin in terms that this is bonus water, and again, that we are sending far more water than we are obligated to downstream, is definitely going to be an issue, if not a major issue, in the renegotiation of the guidelines for the river,” she said.

The Great Salt Lake dilemma

Newly chosen House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, convened this third annual summit, originally started by his predecessor Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

Schultz, whose neighbor literally is the Great Salt Lake, praised the recent foresight of lawmakers and other policy influencers for coming to the table, answering a wakeup call and making changes in terms of water resources.

“We have made tremendous progress in water conservation and efficient management practices that have truly changed the way Utahns think about water in our beloved state. Today, we hope to build upon that momentum and expand the conversation. Let’s take a holistic view and address the challenges of all of Utah’s water systems from the Bear Lake to the Colorado River.”

Schultz cited a number of new laws that address water scarcity in Utah and a growing awareness of how important protecting this finite resource is.

He emphasized the collaboration has been inspired by a crisis that is facing the state now.

“We have nonprofit leaders, state officials, industry experts, and everyday citizens all come together in a way that we don’t often see, especially in today’s political environment and world to help save the Great Salt Lake to recognize that we don’t have enough water in this state to collectively move forward.”

In times of climate uncertainty, Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed said it is imperative moving forward to continue to come up with innovative ways to conserve water and get every water user on board.

The Great Salt Lake, he said, has three major tributaries: the Bear River, which provides about 60% of the water flowing into the lake, the Jordan River which is about 22% of the water, and the Weber River, which contributes about 18%.

“Over time, you’ll notice that water inputs have been falling,” he said. “That’s largely due to human diversions off of those main stems of those bodies of water.”

But when it comes to half full or half empty, Steed is the type of natural resources expert who says he sees a way Utah can dig its way out of this, to benefit not only the state but its ecological and economic value to the world.

While his new role as the Great Salt Lake commissioner has kept him up at night and worries him a lot, he’s invested in change.

“Overall, I remain incredibly optimistic that we’re going to be able to get it right.”

Afterward, Schultz told the Deseret News he, too, is optimistic given how attitudes have changed in Utah when it comes to water, especially the Great Salt Lake.

A Hooper resident, he recalls a time 40 years ago when most residents viewed water going to the lake as wasted.

“People are thinking about it differently and it excites me,” he said.

The Great Salt Lake, he emphasized, is not just a Wasatch Front problem, but a problem for the rest of the state and the country that has been underscored by the drought.

It is incumbent upon water users, the state, lawmakers, policy experts and surrounding states to arrive at solutions to deal with water scarcity in Utah in general.

“It’s got to be a bigger discussion about just the Great Salt Lake because we have to find that balance.”

He added that he thinks with innovations, that will happen.

“We’re excited to dive into that.”