St. George not the reason for water shortages on Colorado River, Mitt Romney says

Utah’s senator was responding to a 60 Minutes segment that highlighted plans for the Lake Powell pipeline.

FILE - This March 23, 2012, file photo, shows pipes extending into Lake Mead well above the high water mark near Boulder City, Nev. Six states in the U.S. West that rely on the Colorado River to sustain cities and farms rebuked a plan to build an underground pipeline that would transport billions of gallons of water through the desert to southwest Utah. In a joint letter Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming urged the U.S. government to halt the approval process for the project, which would bring water 140 miles (225 km) from Lake Powell in northern Arizona to the growing area surrounding St. George, Utah. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

Even as California has declared a statewide drought emergency in response to a federal shortage declaration for the Colorado River, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, says blaming St. George for the strain on the water supply in the western U.S. is misguided.

Romney was responding to a 60 Minutes documentary that aired Sunday night, which featured JB Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California saying building the Lake Powell pipeline to support growth in St. George did not make sense.

“60 Minutes was right to raise the alarm over the shrinking Colorado River. Criticism of St. George, however, with 1/100th the population of Los Angeles was misguided. New strategies, not blame, are needed. Utah will continue to be a good partner in this effort,” Romney wrote on Twitter.

Officials in Utah have argued the state is exercising its share of claims to the Colorado River under the Law of the River by building the pipeline from Lake Powell, which is at its lowest level in history as drought and climate change have dried out the Colorado River basin.

“What we are witnessing in Utah and throughout the West is an historic drought. The changing climate means that we are going to have to rethink how we solve the West’s water challenges, and last month’s float trip down the Colorado River with Senator Bennet was an opportunity to begin to build consensus toward addressing them,” Romney said in an emailed statement to The Tribune. “I look forward to our continued work in the Senate to find solutions to climate-related challenges so that we can do our part to leave the world in a better place for our children and grandchildren.”

The 60 Minutes segment looked at how seven southwestern states, including Utah, and over 30 Native American tribes, have ties to the diminishing river. The Utah Division of Water Resources is proposing the Lake Powell Pipeline, estimated to cost $1.1 to $1.8 billion. It would pump about 28 billion gallons out of the river to send it to Washington County, which is experiencing a population boom.

Zach Renstrom, general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, told 60 Minutes that Utah is entitled to its share of water.

“Every state on the Colorado River was allotted so much water and a water budget,” Renstrom said. “And so with their water budget, the state of Utah has decided that it wants to use a portion of its water here in St. George.”

Zachary Frankel, executive director for Utah Rivers Council, disputes that there is water in the system for Utah to claim more. Frankel said that Utah’s claim to the Colorado fails to account for how climate change has dramatically diminished the river’s flows, and he says that the state is already diverting its full share. Anything piped to St. George, he said, would be taken from existing water rights holders, such as tribes and farmers.

“Utah does not have rights to more Colorado River water,” Frankel said. “To claim otherwise is propaganda. To claim otherwise is climate change denial.”

Frankel added that Utah needs to respect the law of the water in the 1922 Colorado Compact and not take more than their share. Doing so, he said, would take water away from communities along the Wasatch Front, tribes like the Navajo Nation and Ute Indian Tribe of Utah and cities like Moab.

The Ute Indian Tribe is already upset with the state for failing to help address its water needs while spending hundreds of millions delivering Colorado River system water to distant cities, via the Central Utah Project.

In a case pending in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court, the tribe alleges Utah’s plans to divert water through the Lake Powell Pipeline could impair existing water rights the Utes have long lacked the means to develop.

The Utah Division of Water Resources flatly denies the Lake Powell Pipeline would have any effect on the Utes’ water rights.

Mark Maryboy, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, a community organizer and a former county commissioner in San Juan County, says that the state should work to get the Navajo Nation water instead of spending hundreds of millions to supply distant communities.

“St. George has enough right now to do what they need to do,” Maryboy said, adding that Utah would be a great partner to bring the 81,000 acre-feet of water to Diné (Navajo) communities under the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, a bill sponsored by Romney.

“This is going to take some time to draw the money that we need to begin building the pipelines to water wells to water tanks and all that stuff,” Maryboy said. “So if Utah ignores [being a good partner] and takes the water to St. George, who knows, you might not have enough water for the Utah Navajos to drink.”