The future of Utah’s relationship with the Colorado River began to take shape in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, as the newly created Colorado River Authority of Utah held its first meeting.
The organization, created by the Utah Legislature during the 2021 session, was formed “to protect, conserve, and develop Utah’s Colorado River system interests,” according to the agency’s website. The agency, which is officially under Gov. Spencer Cox’s office, consists of six appointed members representing water interests from around the state.
The agency comes into existence as one of the most severe droughts in recent memory grips the state. Almost 99% of the state is experiencing extreme drought.
Roughly 40 million people in seven states rely on water from the Colorado River. Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico make up the Upper Basin States. Arizona, California and Nevada are the Lower Basin.
Each state gets a share of the water, known as the Colorado River Compact. The Upper Basin states get a percentage of the water that flows every year, while the Lower Basin states are guaranteed a set amount. Based on the 1922 agreement, Utah receives 23% of the Upper Basin’s share after the Lower Basin’s share is met.
State officials and Republican lawmakers have long complained that Utah is not taking its full allocation from the river, which is delivering less water.
“The complexities of the river continue to increase. More and more people rely on the Colorado River, and it was obvious to legislators we needed to spend some additional resources,” said Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, who was named chair of the new agency’s board.
Lawmakers allocated nearly $10 million dollars for the new agency. That includes $600,000 of ongoing money to pay for three staff members and other expenses. There’s also $9 million in one-time money available along with an expected $1.5 million annual “in-kind” contribution from the state’s water authorities, which brings the total funding to just over $11 million.
There is a fear among environmental activists that the agency was put in place to push the controversial $1.8 billion Lake Powell Pipeline, which would provide water for rapidly growing Washington County.
“The idea that there is surplus water out there is ridiculous. There’s not enough water in the system. It’s over-allocated,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.
The amount of water in the Colorado River is declining at an alarming rate. The two largest reservoirs on the river, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are at their lowest recorded levels. The pool elevation in Lake Powell was 3,554 feet on Friday. Earlier in July, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation said there was a 79% chance that the water in Lake Powell would fall below 3,525 feet in the next year, which would prompt more water restrictions. Last month, Lake Mead was at just 39% capacity.
“The system is declining. The water is disappearing,” Frankel said.
Some have intimated that the $9 million from the Legislature will fund a legal fight with other states over the dwindling amount of water. Shawcroft disputed that, saying he sees a chunk of those funds going toward studies to better understand how much water Utah is actually using.
“I have every confidence that it’s in the state’s best interests to work together rather than to try to file legal action. As difficult as these things are, we will have the ability to work with folks in other states to come up with solutions that work for everybody,” Shawcroft said.