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Upper Basin States Using More Colorado River Water Than Legally Acceptable

Via The Spectrum, a look at continued stress on the Colorado River:

A new report on the declining Colorado River claims that three states in the river’s Upper Basin, including Utah, are already using more water from the river than is their legal right, and points specifically to the Lake Powell Pipeline project as “a good example of a bad idea threatening other water users.”

If federally approved, the pipeline would bring up to 28 billion gallons of water each year to St. George from Lake Powell, already at historic lows. The project is currently the largest proposed diversion of water from the Colorado River, which serves the needs of more than 40 million people across seven western states, as well as Washington County’s primary plan to meet projected demands of future growth.

The 85-page report, titled ‘A Future on Borrowed Time,’ was released Monday morning by the Utah Rivers Council (URC), a nonprofit organization focused on the conservation and stewardship of Utah’s rivers. It takes immediate issue with Utah officials by explaining that the effort was ”initiated after hearing claims by some Utah water leaders who have refused to acknowledge that climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado River.”

Indeed, some Utah leaders have been slow to accept the scientific consensus on climate change: that it is likely causing a long-term aridification, or drying, of the American West that will necessitate a shift in current practices around water management and use in order to meet the demands of a growing regional population.

Utah Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, for example, openly shared his optimism at a legislative hearing in February on the formation of Utah’s Colorado River Authority, a new governmental body charged with securing the state’s access to the Colorado River,  that “climate change is a cycle. And I believe we’ll come back [to wetter years].”

Conclusions reached by the newly-released URC report, that current overall use rates of Colorado River water are unsustainable given warming temperatures and accelerating development, echo those of a white paper produced by scientists at Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies (CCRS) earlier this year. At the time, Jack Schmidt, an author of the CCRS study, explained their findings about water use from the Colorado River Basin this way:

Both reports also criticize the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River projections as not taking into full account current and future water use rates and the likely toll of climate change and an ongoing “Millennium Drought.”

Now, the new URC report claims that three of the four Upper Basin states — Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, but not Wyoming — are “likely already using more water than they are allocated.” This calculation is based on long-standing legal agreements that allocated Upper Basin states a percentage, rather than a fixed quantity, of “the leftovers” in the river after delivery obligations to Lower Basin states and Mexico have been met.

As climate change reduces the overall flow, volumes allocated to Upper Basin states will shrink accordingly. But the URC argues that ongoing usage rates have not recognized the shift in supply. The overall current use by Upper Basin states of 4,592,000 acre-feet per year exceeds what its modern climate-adjusted allotment of 4,088,000 acre-feet should be by 504,000 acre-feet, the report says. That’s approximately 164 billion gallons of overuse that still does not include some Tribal water rights that have not yet been developed.

Utah has repeatedly justified its pursuit of the Lake Powell Pipeline project by claiming that the state never fully developed its rights to 23% of the Colorado River’s Upper Basin flows. The new URC report, however, has calculated Utah’s current total Colorado River water usage as already being 151,000 acre-feet — about 49 billion gallons — beyond what 23% of Upper Basin flows actually are under a modern average flow scenario that factors in a 19% climate-driven drop in overall water supply since original allocations were determined a century ago. This water overdraft is nearly twice what the Lake Powell Pipeline would import to St. George.

Consequences of over-usage by Upper Basin states, according to the report, may fall on these states’ own existing users because the situation may trigger new curtailments of Upper Basin allocations that could have far-reaching economic and social impacts, such as to Utah’s growth or agricultural industry. Because of this, the report again takes aim directly at Utah’s plans, concluding that ”new proposed water diversions should be abandoned, particularly those that are not truly needed, like the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.”

In a press conference Monday morning, Zachary Frankel, Executive Director of the URC, underscored this point by saying that Utah leaders’ support for the Lake Powell Pipeline “endangers current existing water users inside Utah.” Instead, the URC has long pushed for Utah to adopt increased water conservation efforts, claiming it has the highest per capita water use rates in the west.

In context of the potential for Colorado River water allocations to be reshuffled among the seven basin states in years to come, it may be relevant to note that Utah experienced the nation’s highest rate of population growth — 18% —between 2010 and 2020. According to a recent analysis by the data analytics group Stacker Studio, nearly 18,000 of those new Utah residents came from California, a Lower Basin state, in 2019 alone. After California, Colorado, an Upper Basin state, exported the second-highest number of people to Utah in 2019 and Arizona, a Lower Basin state, ranked fourth for states sending newcomers to Utah.

Monday’s press conference hosted by the URC also included a representative from Mexico, Margarita Diaz, who serves as the Executive Director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, the Tijuana Waterkeeper. Diaz’s presence highlighted the fact that the overall needs of water users moving throughout the Colorado River Basin stateside isn’t the only concern. Solutions to climate-driven shortages will also need to have an international focus.

“We all depend on the same source: the Colorado River,” Diaz said.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 18th, 2021 at 5:40 am and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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