Right now, the Utah Board of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation are in the process of negotiating a water rights exchange for the Lake Powell Pipeline. If we factor in climate change, even what we can see happening right now, those “paper” water rights should not even exist.
The Bureau of Reclamation acknowledges climate change; they even think we should plan on it. In the 2012 executive summary of the Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study, they openly admit, “Climate change may put water users and resources relying on the river at risk of prolonged water shortages in the future.” They go on to analyze current climate predictions and come up with a median expected decrease in Colorado River flow of about 9 percent by 2060. This number is very low compared to other studies that suggest a conservative estimate could be closer to 20 percent, but we’ll go with it, since it’s the number the Bureau of Reclamation officially recognizes.
What does a 9 percent decrease in total river flow look like for Utahns? Well, for context, the entire state of Utah gets about 9 percent of the Colorado right now. The way that the loss of water will get distributed is complicated — a new drought management plan is sure to unfold in the next five years — but what we know now is that the loss of flow will not be distributed equally, according to the Colorado River Compact and the Law of the River. This will leave mostly the Upper Basin States (Utah included) with a significant decrease.
This is a problem because the State of Utah is busy trying to develop every last drop of our allocation based on river flows that we’re likely to never see again. These major new water users include the Northern Ute Tribe (105,000 acre feet per year (afy)); the Utah Navajo (81,500 afy); the Green River Block for Uintah County (72,600 afy, which is probably going to be increasing oil, gas, and potential tar sand or oil shale mining); and the Lake Powell Pipeline (86,000 afy). The Lake Powell Pipeline has the youngest priority date for those water rights. In the law of Western water, the most recently-dated water rights get cut first, so, if a shortage comes, the Lake Powell Pipeline will be the first to lose out.
The Board of Water Resources knows about the predictions for decreasing water in the Colorado River Basin. It’s their job, after all, and they work closely with the Bureau of Reclamation on these issues. In fact, the drought that hit the Colorado River Basin from 1999 to 2014 decreased river flow by about 19 percent. This makes me wonder what they’re thinking. Why invest $1.8 billion into a public works project likely to never have water rights? My sense, based on the dark history of colonization in this state, is that they might just think they can take the water anyway. After all, native water projects will take many, many years to fund and develop, and by that time, St. George will have grown so much that they’ll actually “need” the water.
The Northern Ute and Navajo have federally reserved water rights that have yet to be agreed upon, or developed, dating back to the creation of the reservations — these rights to the water are stronger than most other users have. The negotiation is slow when working with sovereign tribal nations, especially because the U.S. and Utah have broken their trust countless times, but that does not mean we should rush ahead as a state and develop all the water before these negotiations are finished. At the very least, we should wait and ensure that the original inhabitants of this state, many of whom haul water and have no public water systems, have access to sufficient water before dumping it on St. George — a 90 percent white community that has plenty of water already and uses twice the national average.
As a society, we have much to learn and much to change. The entrenched institutions that govern us reproduce our dark past every day, with seemingly innocuous policies that promote development, economic growth and security. We need to ask ourselves who is benefiting from these policies and who is being left out. Tell your senators, tell the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, tell the Division of Water Resources — tell everyone that we want justice in this changing world. We absolutely need to start factoring known changes in climate into the decisions that we are making today. St. George doesn’t need more golf courses and ponds to entice more land development; we need to secure basic water rights on the reservations in this state. We need to live within the natural bounds of our watershed, and we need to acknowledge and work with the challenges that climate change is bringing to us — not ignore them and pretend that it is not happening.
Sarah Stock grew up on the muddy banks of the Colorado River. When she’s not advocating for clean water and a just transition away from fossil fuels, she’s hiking the canyons of the Colorado Plateau and growing food. Currently, Sarah works for Living Rivers.
“We need to live within the natural bounds of our watershed, and we need to acknowledge and work with the challenges that climate change is bringing to us — not ignore them and pretend that it is not happening.”