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Utah may be overusing its Colorado River allotment. That could lead to unprecedented cuts in water use

A full moon rises over the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at Lake Powell in Utah on Saturday, March 27, 2021.
A full moon rises over the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at Lake Powell in Utah on Saturday, March 27, 2021. Over the last 20 years, the water flow in the Colorado River has declined by roughly 20%. But some states in the river’s basin, including Utah, haven’t adjusted to the dwindling supply.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Over the last 20 years, the water flow in the Colorado River has declined by roughly 20%. But some states in the river’s basin, including Utah, haven’t adjusted to the dwindling supply.

And if it doesn’t make adjustments, Mexico and other states in the Lower Colorado River Basin could demand the Beehive State scale back its water use.

That’s according to a new report from the Utah Rivers Council that argues Utah is currently using more water than it’s allowed to under the Colorado River Compact, an agreement among states dating back to 1922 that essentially divvies up the water in the river.

The region is in the midst of a historic drought. Over the summer, the first water shortage was announced for the Colorado River — a 18% reduction for Arizona, a 7% cut for Nevada and a 5% curtailment for Mexico.

Over five years, Nevada’s Lake Mead and Utah’s Lake Powell — the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. — saw their capacity drop by half.

At Lake Powell, emergency releases were instituted from three upstream reservoirs to boost water levels and to keep power generation functioning at the Glen Canyon Dam, which produces enough electricity for 336,000 households.

Still, some lawmakers have argued that Utah has a surplus according to the water rights allotted under the Colorado River Compact. The report claims the state is actually in a deficit.

“This idea that there is a surplus of water runs counter to the intuition that most people experience when they visit the Colorado River,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, during a media conference Monday.

The Colorado River Compact dictates the lower basin — which consists of Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico — is granted a fixed amount of water. The upper basin states are then allocated the “leftovers.”

Colorado gets roughly 52% of the water allotted to the upper basin, Utah 23%, Wyoming 14% and New Mexico just over 11%. The report estimates those four states use about 4 million acre-feet of water.

During the 20th century, the Colorado River system averaged 15.2 million acre-feet of water per year — currently, the river is averaging 12.4 million acre-feet, which represents a decline of almost 20%.

That translates to a 500,000 acre-foot deficit in water use for states in the upper basin. With the exception of Wyoming, each state is contributing to the deficit.

That decline, and the subsequent deficit in the upper basin states, means that the lower basin states and Mexico could rightfully demand Utah, Colorado and New Mexico cut back their current water use.

What that would look like is unclear, Frankel said, although it could upend the status quo for the agricultural industry. Out of all the water pulled from the Colorado River, between 60% to 70%, is used for agriculture.

“There’s no definitive or even theoretical concepts presented publicly in the upper basin to cut water use,” Frankel said. “There’s lots of talk about water conservation, but there’s no meaningful proposals, of any way shape or form, in the Upper Colorado River Basin to cut water.”

Frankel pointed to the dramatic imagery this summer from Lake Powell, which saw most of its marinas closed and boat ramps rendered inoperable, or at least very difficult to use.

“There are more than 400,000 acre-feet of new water diversions being proposed in the upper basin,” he said. Though some of the proposals are overly ambitious and will likely never pan out, Utah has thrown its support behind the Lake Powell Pipeline, a project that would divert 86,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir, transporting it over 140 miles to rapidly growing Washington County.

That notion of a surplus is keeping the proposed pipeline alive, which would be the largest new water diversion in the Colorado River, according to Frankel.

On Monday he warned that should the pipeline be built in the face of a water deficit, it could cost Utah.

“Either they’re going to construct a $2- or $3-billion empty pipe, or water users along the Wasatch Front or irrigators in the Uintah Basin will have to give up water to make sure there’s water in the Lake Powell pipeline,” he said. “This is what lower basin water users have been yelling for years and years and years, but a lot of the upper basin has been deaf to their concerns.”

Where the West’s extraordinary growth factors into water use

On Monday, water advocates representing nonprofits from across the Colorado River Basin portrayed a regionwide complacency, where state leaders and decision-makers use outdated figures to justify new projects that would divert more water from the river, while welcoming astronomical growth that they say is not sustainable.

Utah’s record growth has been used as an argument for the Lake Powell Pipeline. And some experts say the booming population along the Wasatch Front is contributing to the Great Salt Lake shriveling to record lows.

“We need to get off our high horses — we’re dealing with a reality where we’ve got paper-budgeted water that makes the situation look good. When in reality, it doesn’t exist,” said Robin Silver, who co-founded the Center for Biological Diversity.

Silver, who lives in Arizona and was born in Phoenix, said the problems have long plagued the Southwest. But growth in the region is putting more strain on the river and its inhabitants, which he says “represent the health of the Colorado River.”

Species like the Colorado pike minnow, razorback suckers and neotropical songbirds are all either extinct, or almost entirely nonexistent in areas they once thrived.

“What’s Arizona’s answer to this? And I have to say to a lesser degree, California and Nevada ... to continue growing at nonsustainable rates. They are promoting inadequate conservation efforts,” Silver said, pointing out that the state has also resorted to using groundwater, a method researchers warn could lead to a water crisis.

In Las Vegas, which has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation over the last decade, Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said that the city continues to grow into incredibly arid regions, using “old averages and old modeling” as a justification.

He pointed to a current proposal to develop thousands of acres of public land into commercial use and subdivisions, in an area with no available groundwater.

“The way that they want to feed this sprawl is to continue to tap Lake Mead. Not that anyone in their right mind thinks that that’s a good idea, but what happens is big utilities have all this water on paper,” Roerink said.