Tom Butine: Time to face the facts about the Colorado River

It is not just a drought we are dealing with, but the aridification of the Southwest.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hite Marina boat ramp comes to an end hundreds of yards from the edge of the Colorado River as it flows into Lake Powell on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

Legislation earlier this year established the Colorado River Authority of Utah (CRAU) to “protect, conserve, use, and develop Utah’s waters of the Colorado River system.” At the time, discussion in the state capitol focused on the “develop” part of the mission, posturing for a legal battle with the other Colorado River Compact states over what the Legislature believes is Utah’s unused Colorado River entitlement.

Instead, the CRAU should focus on this overriding question: How much water can Utah safely expect from the Colorado River? The answer has critical implications for the Lake Powell pipeline (LPP) and for water policy throughout the state.

For more than 20 years, Utah and Washington County have argued the LPP is (1) needed, (2) affordable, (3) environmentally acceptable and (4) a risk-free and wise use of Utah’s Colorado River water. Conserve Southwest Utah and many others have consistently and vocally presented counter-arguments. The first three points are largely matters of judgment and values; the fourth point however, should be addressed as a matter of fact.

Utah has claimed we’re entitled to almost 50% more Colorado River water than we’re currently using. But this ignores the facts of the declining natural river flow rates, reservoir evaporation, climate change impacts, senior water rights (Mexico and Indigenous tribes), and key elements of the Law of the River based on the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

CSU’s analysis of the facts indicates Utah can safely rely on only half of what it has considered its entitlement. Facing this fact will require a 30% reduction of current use, never mind any new uses, such as the LPP.

If Utah water authorities disagree with this conclusion, their analysis should be transparent, objective and public. Historically, it hasn’t been. The CRAU can set a new standard by openly engaging the public in determining the facts, drawing conclusions, making decisions and addressing impacts.

The federal approval process for the LPP was halted in 2020 after the draft Environmental Impact Statement (which includes economic and risk analyses) drew 14,000 comments from the public, and a letter from the other six Colorado River Compact states threatening legal action if Utah attempts LPP approval without engaging them, as required by the Compact.

Utah has spent close to $40M on this approval process. No more money should be spent until the issues identified in CSU’s analysis are addressed.

Utah and the entire Colorado River Basin are not just experiencing an epic “drought,” as the governor’s recent executive order implies, but rather a long-term, climate-induced “aridification,” resulting in much less water for us to use. Droughts are temporary and require only temporary solutions. Aridification requires long-term adaptation.

The first step in that adaptation should be to face the facts about the Colorado River. That step would lead to large-scale changes in Utah’s policies for managing the disparity between its water supply and demand, the balance of agricultural and municipal uses, and Native American water rights.

To be successful, this requires openly engaging stakeholders, including the public, to conservatively and scientifically determine Utah’s practical future Colorado River allocation, and to implement policies for wisely and justly managing it.

The CRAU, as a top priority, should address these critical issues head-on. Utah will be in a stronger position with the other Colorado River Compact States — and with all Utahns — if its proposals are based on openly verified facts and analysis. Let the numbers speak for themselves. Our state’s future is at risk.

Tom Butine | Board President, Conserve Southwest Utah

Tom Butine is a retired engineer-scientist, program manager and Boeing Technical Fellow, and has studied Utah’s impending water crisis and climate science for many years. He is the volunteer President of Conserve Southwest Utah and the Southwest Utah Leader of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.