Utah Senate backs new agency to battle neighboring states over Colorado River

HB297 would establish a new agency with a $9 million war chest to ensure Utah receives its share of water.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Colorado River flows into Lake Powell near Hite Marina on Feb. 4, 2021.

The state Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would establish the so-called Colorado River Authority of Utah, along with a $9 million “legal defense fund,” intended to ensure that the state receives its allotted share of the Colorado’s dwindling flows.

“Our surrounding states have spent the last several years spending millions and millions of dollars to fight against our having our share,” Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said on the Senate floor, offering no evidence to support the assertion. “It’s important to our state to stop running our share of the water down the Colorado River. We need to recapture it. It’s our water. They’re making moves every day to posture in the surrounding states to take our water right away from us.”

Utah has shared the Colorado River’s flow with six Western states under a century-old agreement, but the Beehive State has been slow to push its stake, according to backers of HB297. Accordingly, Utah uses 54% of its share, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said shortly before the Senate approved the measure in a 24-3 vote.

Critics say this new water agency is really geared toward advancing the proposed Lake Powell pipeline and risks igniting a water war with the six other states, now on record opposing the pipeline that would funnel Colorado River water to St. George.

“This bill has been railroaded through the Utah Legislature despite widespread criticism about its climate change denial, lack of transparency and the bill’s exemption from conflict-of-interest laws,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. “We do not need an expensive agency. We need transparency. We need more conservation.”

The proposed Colorado River Authority of Utah would marshal a team of experts and lawyers to match the resources that California, Arizona and Nevada devote to asserting their interests in the river, according to Adams and co-sponsor House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

“The factor limiting growth isn’t our infrastructure, it’s not our land, even though almost 70% of our land is owned by the federal government. It’s water,” Adams said. “We know that 60% of the population of Utah relies on the Colorado River. … What this bill does is help preserve and conserve Utah’s right to the Colorado River. It’s very important that we hire and use the most technical specialists, both engineers, planners and those that want to conserve water.”

The bill now returns to the House for some minor amendments that require that chamber’s approval.

Ipson and other lawmakers allege the Colorado’s Lower Basin states are tapping Utah’s share of the river.

“This bill, and the products of this bill, will help us stop that nonsense,” Ipson said. “If the water that we turn loose down the Colorado were held behind the Glen Canyon Dam — that is our portion — Lake Powell would look a lot different today than it does.”

Today, depleted by persistent drought and overallocation of the Colorado, Lake Powell is less than 38% full with its water level down by 129 feet.