A depleted Colorado River is going to force us to rethink water in the West, Robert Gehrke writes.

Despite Utah politicians’ claims that the state doesn’t use its full allotment, it does — and then some.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s a talking point repeated again and again by Utah politicians in response to calls for water conservation: Utah doesn’t actually use all of the Colorado River water its entitled to.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox trotted out the well-worn talking point last week, as the Bureau of Reclamation for the first time reduced the allocations of water to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

“Many of the Upper Basin states, including Utah, we’re under our allocation,” Cox said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But that doesn’t matter that much when there isn’t enough water to go around.”

He’s kinda right and kinda wrong.

Utah IS using its full allocation of Colorado River water. The issue is that the river, gripped by the worst drought in 1,200 years, has dwindled dramatically, and with it, so has the amount of water that states like Utah and Colorado are entitled to use.

Here’s the history: The allocations of the river are built upon the century-old Colorado River Compact, which itself relied on a robust — and wrong — assumption that the river would continue to flow at very high levels more or less forever.

Hydrologists use the term “acre-feet,” a measurement of how much water is needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of water, and when the Compact was put together it divvied up more than 15 million acre-feet in the river — roughly 5 trillion gallons.

Today, only about 12.3 million acre-feet flow in the river, down about 20% from the level it was at when the allocations were originally made and, under the provisional data for 2021, the flow was just 6.3 million acre-feet, according to Amy Haas, executive director of Utah’s new Colorado River Authority.

Under the Compact, subsequent treaties, laws and regulations that make up The Law Of The River, Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — get 7.5 million acre-feet of water, regardless of how much is in the river.

The Upper Basin States of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico have divvied up whatever is left over, with Utah getting 23% of whatever is available.

It’s easy to see where this ends up: The Lower Basin gets its fixed amount while the Upper Basin states like Utah are at the mercy of climate change and the resulting diminished flows.

“The system is out of balance,” Haas said. “It just doesn’t work.”

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Haas said if the states were still dividing up 15 million acre feet, Utah wouldn’t be utilizing all it was entitled to, but there’s not much point debating who is entitled to use water that doesn’t currently exist.

That is a point that was made in a report issued late last year by the Utah Rivers Council. Based on the water that is actually available, Utah is using about 500,000 more acre feet per year than it is entitled to given the current average flows. Wyoming is the only state that is not running a deficit.

But Utah water bosses and politicians still repeat the claim that Utah has excess Colorado River water at its disposal, usually in an attempt to make the case for the nonsensical Lake Powell Pipeline.

Cox, to his credit, was more nuanced when he discussed the issue during his monthly news PBS news conference Thursday.

“We’re never going to get what was our fair share, what we had been promised, because the hydrology of the river is not there,” he said. “There’s not enough for all of our allocations, so we’re all going to have to cut back. The question will be: How do we fairly distribute those cutbacks among the states?”

And that really is the key issue that needs to be addressed.

Last Tuesday, the Bureau of Reclamation, for the first time in history, implemented a drought contingency plan to reduce the amount flowing to some of those Lower Basin states and Mexico, cutting the allocation by 720,000 acre-feet, and has told states to come up with a plan to reduce consumption by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — a massive and politically fraught undertaking, but an important wake-up call.

We can’t keep engaging in business as usual and focusing on who is entitled to water that isn’t there.

And Upper Basin states shouldn’t be the ones who have to keep taking reductions. Because the radically shifting reality of the river is going to demand a radically different paradigm, one where everyone will need to change how they operate and we all share in the pain.