Washington • Utah’s members of Congress are praising the passage of legislation that seeks to curtail water usage from the Colorado River in seven, drought-stricken Western states.
The bill, which now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk, passed the House and Senate on a voice vote and is aimed at shrinking usage from the Colorado River, which provides drinking water, irrigation and hydropower for some 40 million Americans.
The proposal comes after years of negotiation and in the nick of time to avert the first-ever federal restrictions on water in the river’s lower basin. Seven states — Utah, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming — are part of the compact that doles out water from the river, and low water levels trigger automatic decreases in use.
The river’s main reservoirs, Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, and Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona, are nearing historic lows. At Lake Mead, a drop in water supply could halt Hoover Dam’s hydropower operations that power more than a million homes in the southwest.
Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said this week that the vote — which comes after negotiations among the seven states affected as well as tribal leaders — is a major positive for the region.
“With the states’ work and today’s vote, we have passed a solution that saves a river that serves 40 million people, irrigates vast amounts of farmland, and encourages clean, emissions-free hydropower,” Bishop said.
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said it was a big step toward saving water and ensuring a future for tens of millions of Americans who rely on the Colorado River.
“The water from the Colorado River is not only the lifeblood for farmers and ranchers in eastern Utah, it also supplies drinking water to the rapidly growing Wasatch Front,” McAdams said. “Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead appear to be operating as designed but both are at uncomfortably low levels. Congress needed to act quickly so that the new agreement can be implemented, and water conservation efforts can begin.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah and a co-sponsor of the bill, tweeted his support for the legislation.
“For the last 19 years, my home state of Utah has been in a severe drought, with Lake Powell currently at dangerously low levels," Romney said in a statement. "The Colorado River is critical to the survival, livelihood and recreation of Utahns, and we must do everything we can to sustain it. By implementing drought contingency plans for the Colorado River Basin, this bill is an important step toward managing Utah’s waters and the communities that depend on them.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the water bill a “landmark drought contingency plan” for the Colorado River Basin and noted the cooperation it took across various local, state, federal and tribal leaders to make it happen.
“Seven states, countless local and tribal authorities, and both the U.S. and Mexico have skin in this game, so hammering out this coordinated plan was no small feat,” McConnell said.
“But now that this agreement will be codified in federal law, tens of millions of Americans will be able to rest easier, knowing that their supply of drinking water and irrigation will be better protected from water shortages.”
While many were throwing kudos at Congress passing the legislation, some argue that while the effort is commendable, it doesn’t go nearly as far as needed to stem the need for water and work toward a sustainable life for the river and those who rely on it.
“It’s good to see that first steps are being taken to address water shortage in the Colorado River Basin, but the measures in the bill will likely fall short of averting the challenges that lie ahead,” said Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute. “The reductions in consumption in the lower basin, while commendable, won’t be enough to stave off the supply/demand imbalances we face.”
Balken points out that Utah is moving ahead with plans to build a pipeline from Lake Powell to the arid parts of the state’s southwestern region, a move that only exacerbates the demand for water instead of working toward conservation.
“When the state claims it’s working to consume less water while forging plans for a new diversion, it’s like someone saying they’re trying to cut back on drinking alcohol as they walk to the check out holding two cases of beer,” Balken said.
It was unclear when the president would sign the bill, but the White House had not signaled any concerns over the measure that saw broad bipartisan support.