Why Utahns should care about the Colorado River

The Salt Lake Tribune has joined the Colorado River Collaborative to keep Utahns informed about this vital resource.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Colorado River flows next to Kane Creek Boulevard in Moab on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

This article is published through the Colorado River Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative supported by the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University.

The Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.

The river winds down the mountains of Colorado to carve red rock canyons in the Southwest, pooling behind dams that create popular recreation areas, distribute vital water supplies and generate hydropower. Where the water once coursed into the Gulf of California is now a dry and drained estuary.

Demand exceeds supply on the Colorado River’s 1,450-mile path — from the seven Western states it sustains to irrigated agriculture to 30 Native American tribes. And that’s not all; the Colorado River’s flows have dropped by at least 20% since the turn of the century, and researchers say that flows could decrease by an additional 20% by 2050 and 35% by 2100.

The majority of Utah’s population — the 2 million people in Salt Lake and Utah counties along the Wasatch Front — gets supplementary water from the Colorado River, according to Bart Leeflang, an assistant general manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District who oversees its Colorado River team.

To share solutions-oriented reporting, The Salt Lake Tribune has joined the Colorado River Collaborative with 10 other news organizations across Utah.

With support from Utah State University’s Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water and Air, the Collaborative will examine conservation strategies, river research and the water negotiations that will determine the Colorado River’s fate.

“This is one of the most pressing issues facing not only our state, but our nation,” said Brian Steed, executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water and Air.

The Colorado River Collaborative

102 years of the Colorado River Compact

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 forms the foundation of the river’s operations. The document, a product of its time, does not outline water rights for Native American tribes or aim for sustainability.

Drafted primarily to resolve political disagreements over the river’s use, the compact splits the Colorado River Basin in half. The Upper Basin states include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming; Arizona, California and Nevada compose the Lower Basin.

The compact decrees that the Upper Basin must send 7.5 million acre-feet of water downstream to the Lower Basin each year before using its own 7.5 million acre-foot allotment. An acre-foot of water is enough to sustain two households for a year.

The Upper Basin states draw their share of water from the river itself, while the Lower Basin states rely on water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. Climate change, reduced flows and overuse have hit the two reservoirs hard — both are currently about a third full.

The Upper Basin experiences decreased river flows from evaporation and climate change, so the states can’t reap their full Colorado River water allotment. In contrast, the Lower Basin is nearly guaranteed its share of water drawn from upstream reservoirs.

The Lower Basin states, in a 2023 agreement, promised to cut their water use by 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026. The federal government compensated for the reductions with infrastructure funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Utah water experts have concerns that this reliance on “compensated conservation” isn’t sustainable, The Tribune reported in December. Depending on future hydrology and reservoir storage, states may have to reduce their use without receiving money in exchange.

The West’s last two winters offered a much-needed reprieve to the tired river.

After Lake Powell plummeted to a record low of 3,522 feet above sea level, or 22% full, in February 2023, that year’s snowpack set records, reaching 130% of average. (The average snowpack is based on data from 1991 to 2020.) Lake Powell rebounded to 38% full after 2023′s runoff.

This year, Lake Powell is projected to reach 37% of full capacity.

“But we are still in the depths of the crisis,” said Jack Schmidt, director of Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies.

Charting the river’s future

The many rules and regulations that currently guide operations for the Colorado River and its reservoirs will expire at the end of 2026. The Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that manages water projects nationwide, oversees the development of the river’s post-2026 operations.

These future guidelines must contend with extreme drought, declining flows and overuse. Five groups have submitted proposals to Reclamation for review: Upper Basin states, Lower Basin states, environmental non-governmental organizations, academics and Colorado River tribes.

The Upper Basin states, which don’t use as much water as the Lower Basin states, say they shouldn’t have to cut their use. Their plan would have Arizona, California and Nevada reduce their use by 1.5 million acre-feet per year under most conditions based on available water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The Lower Basin states argue that the whole Colorado River Basin should share water sacrifices. Their proposal would have Arizona, California and Nevada reduce use when water storage in all seven reservoirs across the Colorado River Basin falls between 38 and 69% full. They ask the Upper Basin states to cut use when total system capacity falls below 38% full.

Western water managers have voiced hope that all seven states will be able to develop a united plan.

“We, along with the Lower Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation, recognize we’ve got to operate the river on supply, not on demand,” said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River commissioner, who represents Utah in ongoing negotiations.

Environmental organizations submitted a proposal focused on saving the river’s ecosystems. Their plan would create a “Conservation Reserve,” an invisible pool of water not factored into reservoir operations that water managers could move around the Colorado River system as needed to support ecosystem health.

The organizations also pitched ideas for inhibiting invasive species and restoring imperiled habitats. They emphasized the need for greater flexibility in river operations given unreliable flows and a changing climate.

Three Colorado River experts and academics — Jack Schmidt, director of Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies; Eric Kuhn, author and former director of the Colorado River Conservation District; and John Fleck, writer in residence at the University of New Mexico’s Utton Center — also submitted a proposal.

Their plan echoes the environmentalists’ proposal in prioritizing flexibility to achieve environmental, cultural and recreational goals on the Colorado River and in the Grand Canyon.

Instead of a proposal, 16 Colorado River tribes submitted a list of principles for Reclamation to consider. The principles include prioritizing the settlement of tribal water rights, allowing tribes flexibility and autonomy in using their water rights and formally integrating tribal input into Colorado River management and governance.

Four of the 30 tribes that depend on the Colorado River are in Utah: the Navajo Nation, the Shivwits Band of Paiutes, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah & Ouray Reservation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Reclamation aims to complete a draft environmental impact statement for post-2026 operations, a crucial step mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), by the end of this year. To do so, the agency will review and model the submitted alternatives and its own objectives.

Demand and drought reveal the need for persistent collaboration, cooperation and problem-solving to sustainably manage the largest water system in the West. Through the Colorado River Collaborative, Utahns will have access to information about the river’s challenges, ecosystems and people.