Did Utah overuse its share of water from the Colorado River?


Western states in the upper half of the Colorado River Basin have claimed for years that they are entitled to far more water than they have historically drawn from within the riverbanks. Specifically, Utah said it would receive up to 300,000 more acres compared to 1.1 million acres used each year, a claim that has been cited in support of various water diversion proposals, such as Lake Powell Pipeline is currently under review.

Such claims may have been true decades ago, but under pressure from climate change, river flows have decreased to the point where Utah, New Mexico and Colorado are now using about 500,000 more acres than they do. their annual rates, according to a study published Monday. via Utah River Council and some other environmental groups.

The new one Report 85 pages, titled “A Future on Borrowed Time,” highlights what its authors say is an uncomfortable truth for water managers, who seem to be working to deny the The West has thin snow and ice and shrinking reservoirs. And the deficit could only worsen if runoff continues to shrink in the face of warming temperatures and reduced rainfall in the West.

“The water crisis in the Colorado River Basin is getting worse and worse,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director. Guardian of WildEarth, said in a call with reporters on Monday. “This report makes clear that the additional dams and diversions from the Colorado River are not only irresponsible, but also put the entire basin and the communities that benefit from its water at risk of economic, environmental and social collapse. and culture. We need real and immediate commitments, especially from the states in the Upper Basin, to live within the means of the river.”

The Utah Department of Natural Resources was unable to make an official announcement Monday to issue a rebuttal. The release of the report was timed to coincide with the start date of the Colorado River Water Users Association Meeting in Las Vegas.

About 40 million people in the rapidly growing Southwestern United States depend on Colorado for at least some of their water. Under a centuries-old agreement among seven western U.S. states in the Colorado Basin, the Upper Basin would release an average of 7.5 million acres of river flow into the Lower Basin, plus parts of Mexico. The upper four states split what remains, and for Utah, that’s 23%.

Utah water officials have long pegged the volume of that portion at 1.3 million acres per year, at least 200,000 more than the state offers. This year, the state established Utah’s Colorado River Authority with the specific purpose of making sure Utah gets what the official says about Utah sharing the entire river.

But the figure cited by the state assumes the Upper Basin will receive 5.7 million acres, as was the benchmark before the long-term “super-drought” was established in the late 1990s.

According to Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah River Council and lead author of the report along with policy analyst Nick Halberg

“There is a 500,000-acre deficit in water use in the four states of the Upper Colorado River Basin, specifically Colorado, Utah and New Mexico that are abusing rights,” Frankel said on a call Monday with reporters. use their water. “The Colorado River has shrunk, and as that happened, Colorado’s reservoirs have shrunk with it.”

According to reports, the Colorado Basin’s extensive reservoir system of 240,000 square miles stores four years of river flow. Today, these reservoirs are full and are shrinking by about half, while the two largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – about a third full. Both face the prospect of shrinking to the point of reaching the “dead abyss”, a time when they no longer function as reservoirs. Long before withering into a puddle of death, the dams at two once giant lakes will stop generating the electricity many utilities rely on to serve customers.

“Filling these reservoirs in an annual snowfall would require a spectacular runoff event, larger than any that has been observed in the past 115 years,” the report states. . “However, water leaders in the Upper Colorado River Basin are laying out their future — in the billions of dollars for taxpayers — on a series of new water diversion projects.”

Proposed diversions, such as Utah’s Lake Powell pipeline, could end up drawing water from existing users if flows continue to decline, the report alleges.

“The Upper Colorado States are well aware of their rights and obligations under the River Law,” the Upper Colorado River Commission said in a statement. “There are challenges across the Colorado River Basin and we are committed, as we have been for many years, to promoting sustainable solutions.”

Over the course of the 20th century, an average of 15.2 million acres per year passed through Lee’s Ferry, a large gauge just below the Glen Canyon Dam. Since 2000, that annual average has dropped to 12.4 million acres. That means the pie of the Upper Basin today is almost 39% smaller than it was before 2000 times, 4.1 million versus 6.9 million, according to the report.

With this math, Utah’s market share would be slightly below 950,000 acres, nearly 200,000 acres less than the state today. Colorado’s annual market share will be 2.1 million, Wyoming’s 600,000, and New Mexico’s 500,000.

“The big question is, are we in the final stages of water depletion?” Frankel said. “Have we experienced a reduction in Colorado River discharge this century?”

Probably not, with projections that climate change is likely to get worse, leading to even thinner layers of snow and ice to supply the 1,450-mile river and its tributaries. So the report analyzes additional scenarios where the flow is reduced by 30% and another 40%. Under the 40% scenario, the deficit in the Upper Basin would increase to 3.8 million acres.

“Colorado” [state] Pelz told reporters there was a deficit of 400,000 acres. “If you’re using common sense, Colorado should reduce its diversions, not increase them. This is climate denial at its best. Any additional diversion from the Colorado River at this time would substantially harm not only the overall health of people, cultures and ecosystems, but also all users. current country”.

And not only current users are at risk but many of the 30 American Indian tribes have a claim to the river and have yet to grow their market share, according to the report.

“We’ve all got to stand up and say, damn it, it’s time to get serious,” said John Wesheit, conservation director for Moab-based Living Rivers. “So obviously there are no new dams and diversions, and no more business as usual. It’s as simple as that.” Did Utah overuse its share of water from the Colorado River?

Yasmin Harisha

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