Proposed river authority would assert Utah’s claims to the Colorado’s dwindling water

A bill would allow the new agency — which environmentalists call “shadowy” — to close its meetings and keep its records confidential.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah legislative leaders on Thursday unveiled plans for a new $9 million state agency to advance Utah’s claims to the Colorado River in hopes of wrangling more of the river’s water. Environmentalists characterized the proposed river commission as a “shadowy new government agency” aimed at promoting the Lake Powell pipeline and other big water diversions. Lake Powell is shown in 2016.

Utah legislative leaders on Thursday unveiled plans for a new $9 million state agency to advance Utah’s claims to the Colorado River in hopes of wrangling more of the river’s diminishing flows, potentially at the expense of six neighboring states that also tap the river.

Without any prior public involvement or notice, lawmakers assembled legislation to create a six-member entity called the Colorado River Authority of Utah, charged with implementing “a management plan to ensure that Utah can protect and develop the Colorado River system.”

Sponsored by House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, HB297 would establish the Colorado River Commission of Utah, with a $600,000 annual budget. Utah shares the river’s flow with six neighboring states, most of which have dedicated large resources and expertise to preserve their interests in the river, according to Wilson. HB297 would help Utah better compete as it renegotiates the century-old agreement that governs how the river’s water is apportioned.

“Approximately 60 percent of our constituents rely upon the Colorado River for their drinking water as a desert state,” Wilson, a Davis County homebuilder, told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Thursday. “Access to this water is obviously a really significant determinant in our ability to thrive here. But more importantly, I think it’s a critical element of the success of future generations and how well they’ll be able to prosper.”

Dismayed the bill was drafted in secrecy, environmentalists argued the legislation is premised on the false idea that Utah is not receiving its full allotment of the Colorado’s flow. They characterized the commission as a “shadowy new government agency” aimed at promoting the Lake Powell pipeline and other big water diversions.

The bill would give broad authority to the new agency to close its meetings and keep its records confidential.

“This bill isn’t about water. It’s about money. It’s about climate change denial,” said Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council. “This bill is a water war. This bill ignites more frustration from other states by creating mythologies and ignorances and disinformation. And those conversations can be done behind closed doors because this bill exempts [the authority] from having to comply with all of the open and public meetings.”

Frankel’s impassioned remarks swayed no Republicans on the committee, who voted to advance HB297 on a party-line 9-2 vote.

“This bill helps get us get what’s ours,” said Rep. Mike Kohler, R-Midway.

A source of water for 35 million people in the West and for irrigating 5 million acres of croplands, the Colorado River is shared with three other Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming) and the three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona).

Under the 1922 agreement apportioning the river’s water, Utah is to receive 23% of the Upper Basin’s share after meeting obligations to the Lower Basin. Mexico and U.S. Indian tribes are also entitled to a share of the river.

Utah officials have long complained that the Beehive State is not taking its full allotment, which they say is 1.4 million acre-feet. For years, Utah’s unused share has been slipping past Glen Canyon Dam for use elsewhere, they complain.

But Frankel and others say state water officials ignore the reality of climate change, which has reduced the river’s flows by about 20% over the past two decades. That means Utah’s cut is a lot less than what has been claimed.

HB297 appears to be an outgrowth of a resolution passed last year that commits Utah agencies to “expeditiously develop and place to beneficial use [the Colorado’s flow] wherever within the state the need may arise.”

HCR22 sponsor Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, told colleagues Utah must either use its share of the Colorado or lose it to the other states, framing the question of water development as an us-versus-them proposition.

“I can tell you that there are other states that would love to have our water and they’re looking for chinks in the armor,” Last said last year in floor debates. “The purpose of this statement is to make clear to the other states that we do intend to use our water.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Utah is drawing about 1 million acre-feet from the Colorado, or about two-thirds of what Utah water officials contend is Utah’s share under the 1922 compact.

The river is under severe pressure from drought and urban growth, according to Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission and the general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

“They will require additional efforts to make sure we can protect Utah’s allocation and use our water as wisely as possible. [HB297] creates a mechanism to pull talented folks together, specialized areas of interest that will be important to protecting this water,” Shawcroft told lawmakers. ”I commit to work cooperatively with the other basin states to make sure that we are in a position to use our water and make sure that we can put it to the best use possible.”

While stressing the importance of cooperating with neighboring states, Wilson said HB297 would “rectify” the disadvantages Utah currently faces.

“This is a finite resource. It is one where, quite frankly, we are outmatched and outgunned right now by those [states] that are using the majority of the water in the river, which is the Lower Basin states,” Wilson said. “We absolutely want to live up to the agreements that have been made to those states. But at the same time, our responsibility as elected officials in Utah is to protect the interests of Utah.”

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, agreed that Utah must be more forceful in asserting its interests against those of Lower Basin states.

“They’ve beaten us to the punch and it’s time we punch back,” he said. “This bill is about 10 years too late. It should have happened a long time ago.”