February 16, 2014

Some fear federal control of Utah water

Starvation Dam overview. (Central Utah Water Conservancy District)
Caleb Warnock
Provo Daily Herald

State Senator Margaret Dayton is warning that Utah is gearing up to stave off yet another attempt to federalize one of the state's major water supplies.

An old agreement controlling which states get water from the Colorado River "is threatened with federal control again because of increasing demand and not increasing availability," she said. "Some western states are banding together to protect water from federal control. You are going to hear more about this in upcoming months."

Called the Colorado River Compact, the agreement is crucial to Utah's future, she said, and the federal government is now pushing to take control. She promised the state will fight all such efforts. The compact is a 92-year-old agreement between states, created specifically to prevent federal control of the Colorado River, which could effectively hand water to California.

Utah's future depends on the Colorado River Compact.

"It is terribly important," said Chris Finlinson of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, a federal agency which develops some of the CRC water for Utah. "That is what has prevented the Wasatch Front from seeing severe water restrictions. It is like the birthright for the state, and it is terribly important that we maintain and protect it."

But drought and a growing population have created immense pressure, said Finlinson. Should the federal government take over the decision of how to allocate the water, "nothing good would come of that for Utah."


Because Utah uses less of its allocation than other states. Utah will need this water in the future, but uses only 75 percent of its legal allocation today. But other states are desperate for more water right now.

"Everyone uses more than Utah," Finlinson said.

Many states use all of their CRC allocation, including Nevada and Arizona. However, most thirsty is California, which not only has been using its whole allocation, but extra too, because of negotiations with other states.

But even getting a full allocation may now be impossible, thanks to a drought that many people think is not a drought at all, but the end of an extended wet period.

Historically, the Colorado River hasn't had this much water to give, and the dry "normal" may be returning.

These parched states would love to get a permanent portion of Utah's allocation, if they could wrangle it, Finlinson said.

The compact divides water in the Colorado River among Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada. A 1944 addendum also gives Mexico a share of the water.

The federal government has made periodic attempts to take control of the compact as a way of settling perennial disagreements and lawsuits, and is now moving to do so again, said Dayton. But the agreement is between states, without federal interference, and must remain that way, she said.

The fate of the Colorado River's precious water has caught national attention in 2014. An article in the New York Times published in January said that water is "being sapped by 14 years of drought nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years." Reservoirs are half-empty, "but many experts believe the current drought is only the harbinger of a new, drier era in which the Colorado's flow will be substantially and permanently diminished. Faced with the shortage, federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, from Lake Powell 180 miles upstream."

According to a National Geographic article published in January, "drought has gripped the Colorado River basin for 14 years, and reservoir operation rules that address dwindling water supply are being triggered. For the first time since the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, this year's water delivery from the Upper Basin states (CO, NM, UT, and WY) to the Lower Basin states (AZ, CA, and NV) will be reduced."

While there are always comments about the potential for the compact to fall apart, Finlinson said that she knows of no serious imminent threat that would force the Colorado River Compact to be re-opened for negotiation. Senator Dayton, working in the newly-opened legislative session, did not respond to interview requests.

Many residents may not realize that all water in Utah is owned by the state, Dayton said.

"You can have a right to use it, but not own it," she said.

By the early 1920s, Utah and neighboring states "feared California would establish priority rights to Colorado River water," according to the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center website.

"That California contributed the least amount of runoff to the river added gall to the situation. Concern turned to alarm" when a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court ruling paved the way for California to "establish priority use of Colorado River water to the extreme disadvantage of slower growing states in the upper basin."

Utah and its neighbors joined together over tense negotiations to create the compact as a way to protect states' rights. The states were "very wary, some even say paranoid, about federal involvement in state affairs and feared if the states did not get their houses in order the federal government would take charge, to the disadvantage of the states," according to the website.