Lake Powell Pipeline Update

Utah's Right to Colorado River Water

Hundreds of University of Utah law students recently participated in a discussion about Utah’s Right to Colorado River Water and the Lake Powell Pipeline. The March 11 presentation sponsored by the Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment was given by Zach Renstrom, Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager, and David Clark, former Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives.

Clark reviewed the “Law of the River” that divides seven western states into Upper and Lower Basins and appropriates 7.5 million acre feet of water annually to each basin. He explained all basin states have the right to develop and beneficially use their Colorado River water. The Law of the River does not allocate rights on a “first in time, first in right” basis. The compacts that comprise the Law of the River were developed to ensure that states could develop at their own pace and faster growing states would not be able to claim all the available basin water.  

California, Arizona and Nevada are collectively using nearly 60% of the Colorado River flows while Utah currently is using about 5%. He noted that Utah was appropriated 23% of the Upper Basin’s 7.5 million acre feet allocation or 1.725 million acre feet of water. Today, the state is using approx. 1 million acre feet of water annually. When planning for future Colorado River uses, Utah voluntarily excludes about 350,000 acre feet of its total allocation to make sure Utah meets its compact obligations despite potential climate change.

In reviewing why the Lake Powell Pipeline is critical for Utah, Renstrom noted that the project is Washington County’s only option for a second water source, is environmentally responsible, allows the state to use a small portion of its Colorado River water rights and will benefit the state’s expanding economy significantly. The Virgin River basin is the single source of water for most of Southern Utah’s population. The system has served the area well, but contaminants, infrastructure damage, floods, wildfires and drought all pose a risk to a single-source system.

Renstrom also reasoned that the LPP complements water conservation, which will remain absolutely critical to meeting future water supply. Washington County has reduced its per person water use more than 30% since 2000 and has aggressive water conservation goals. Renstrom noted southern Utah is already home to the most water efficient landscapes in Utah as reported in 2018 by the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. Washington County only has 17% vegetative cover compared to Salt Lake’s 44%.

Renstrom and Clark responded to dozens of questions during the 90-minute Q&A period, as summarized below:

Question: Is supply available in the form of agricultural water in Washington County for conversion into metropolitan and industrial use?

Renstrom: Yes, we are planning on that in our [water supply] models and are acquiring available water rights now. However, there are not significant agricultural lands in Washington County. Secondly, there is poor water quality in the majority of those fields that can’t be converted into drinking water without expensive reverse osmosis treatment plants that have huge environmental impacts including extensive energy use and residual brine by-products that are toxic to wildlife and vegetation.

Question: Will climate change make it more difficult to meet the obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact?

Renstrom: The LPP environmental documents address climate change and its impact on the Colorado River. In fact, climate change is one of the key reasons for the LPP. The Virgin River has huge variability, we know that climate change is going to effect the river, and so we have accounted for these impacts. In addition, the state of Utah also has estimated a 20% impact to its allocation of Colorado River from climate change.

Clark: Utah does not bear the full responsibility of supply shortfalls. This is one reason why the Utah legislature created the Colorado River Authority to make sure Utah’s rights are protected.

Question: How does the LPP impact the discussions currently underway with other Basin states and the federal government regarding operating guidelines for the Colorado River?

Renstrom: We are having discussions with other basin states now and they’ve been very positive. But the LPP is a relatively small component of the overall scheme for the Colorado River. LPP is probably one of 50 projects that will be included in these discussions. LPP represents about 5% of Utah’s Colorado River allocation.

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