Utah isn’t forced to make cuts, but will still feel the pain from Colorado River agreement

The state may never see its full allotment of the river’s water, while curtailments impact everything from food prices to how our communities grow.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mud cracks along the shores of the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon as mountains of sediments are slowly washed away and beaches begin to return as Lake Powell recedes due to ongoing drought cycles.

California, Arizona and Nevada have agreed to use less Colorado River water in the next few years. And while the deal doesn’t apply to the Upper Basin states like Utah, it doesn’t mean Utahns won’t feel any impact.

The Colorado River supports around 40 million people living in seven Western states, tribal reservations and Mexico, but its volume has dropped by one-third in recent years. About half of the river basin’s water goes to beef and dairy production, recent research has found. Climate change coupled with population growth in the region has further fueled water shortages.

All that has put hydropower production and more than 5 million acres of farmland at risk, while also stoking political tensions.

The U.S. Department of Interior called on the river’s water users to curtail their use by two to four million acre-feet this year alone. When the seven Colorado River Basin states couldn’t reach a resolution on how to do that earlier this year, the feds upped the pressure by signaling they would force mandates of their own, with big implications for California and Arizona, which apparently prompted the latest deal.

The three Lower Basin states, which hold senior water rights on the river, announced Monday they had found a short-term solution. In a three-page letter, they outlined plans to cut a collective 3 million acre-feet over three years in exchange for $1.2 billion from the federal government.

Why only the Lower Basin states had to submit a Colorado River plan

So, why don’t Upper Basin states like Utah have to contribute cuts of their own?

Part of the reason is that the law of the river is a century old, with extensive litigation sprinkled between the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922 and the conflicts states are experiencing today. In a nutshell, the interstate agreements mean the Upper Basin states must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet to the senior water right holders in the Lower Basin states before they use their own allotted 7.5 million acre-feet.

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“What’s important to realize is the Lower Basin states have already used up their full allocation,” said Gage Zobell, a water law expert and partner at the firm Dorsey & Whitney. “There was already litigation and fights going on in the Lower Basin even before the Upper Basin had to get involved.”

A spat between Arizona and California more than six decades ago resulted in the Interior Department — currently helmed by Secretary Deb Haaland — becoming a “water master” of sorts for the Lower Basin, which is why Haaland has the authority to make cuts there.

“However, she does not have the same authority in the Upper Basin,” explained Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “Rather, any reductions in use in the Upper Basin are a function of individual state law and regulation, as well as hydrologic shortage — something Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming experience almost every year.”

Because Upper Basin states only use a fraction of what they are allowed in the compact — Zobell estimates it’s around 4.5 million acre-feet — they haven’t had a need for a federal water master yet.

But with growing populations and stresses of their own, it’s clear the system isn’t working in the Upper Basin either.

“Even though we don’t have a water master, the measurement of drought conditions at Lake Powell and Lake Mead affect us,” Zobell said.

That’s because when there are shortages in Lake Mead and Lower Basin States, Upper Basin states have to release water out of Lake Powell to ensure senior water rights get fulfilled.

That means a loss of recreational opportunities for Utahns in Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge as those reservoirs get tapped to meet downstream obligations.

It also means communities like St. George can’t count on water or the Lake Powell Pipeline to meet growing demand.

“It’s that obligation of release that I think has triggered, if not animosity, then friction among the Upper Basin (states),” Zobell said.

Food costs will ‘absolutely’ rise

The Lower Basin states arrived at their current $1.2 billion figure based on a formula in the federal Inflation Reduction Act, Zobell said, and it will most likely be used to encourage farmers to fallow their fields and improve irrigation practices. But because the announcement is just a three-page summary of what those states intend to do, details remain slim and they will need to somehow prove their efforts result in actual reduced use.

“You can’t force the farmer to take the money,” Zobell said. “In some ways, this is very aspirational. We think it will work, but we haven’t seen it work yet.”

The Lower Basin states include farms which produce much of the food the United States relies on, however, and water cuts will “absolutely” drive up food prices, he added.

“We, as a nation, are going to bear the cost of this,” Zobell said. “We’re going to see prices go up, beyond inflationary issues.”

Ultimately, the Lower Basin plan is also just a “stopgap” scramble for solutions over the next three years, Zobell said.

“We can’t pay ... billions of dollars every year for people to stop using water,” he said.

With full details yet to be fleshed out, there is no guarantee it will even work.

Drought forced states to the negotiating table in 2007, when they developed “Colorado River Interim Guidelines” which include drought contingency plans. The Department of Interior is currently working to update and revise those guidelines, set to expire at the end of 2025, as Lake Powell and Lake Mead remain dangerously low and precariously close to failure all these years later.

“If we don’t get this right, and drought conditions worsen, how far is the (department) going to go in a way that might impact Utah?” Zobell asked.

Haas, with the Colorado River Authority of Utah, said in a statement the state so far supports the temporary, three-year plan announced this week. But she called for longer-term curtailments in Arizona, Nevada and California.

“What we need are permanent, uncompensated reductions in Lower Basin use to help bring the system into balance,” Haas said. “This will require that the Secretary of Interior make hard decisions in the future and not simply pay her way out of the problem.”