Two controversial governmental actions recently surfaced regarding water rights, as government officials seek to ensconce water rights for development at both state and local levels. Governor Cox has created a new state agency to advocate for Colorado River water and, in Southwest Utah, county water managers are proposing a new $30 million reservoir for Kane and Washington Counties. At both levels of government, environmental groups claim the stated intentions for the new projects conceal their true real purpose: harnessing more water for growth and development.

Utah State legislators recently created the Colorado River Authority of Utah, a new state agency aimed at advocating for more water out of the river for the state.

“Access to this water is obviously a really significant determinant in our ability to thrive here,” Utah State Speaker of the House Brad Wilson told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. “But more importantly, I think it’s a critical element of the success of future generations and how well they’ll be able to prosper.”

However, environmental groups point to language in House Bill 297 that would allow the government body to be capable of closed-door meetings. The bill would exempt the agency from the Open Public Meetings Act, which regulates government transparency and promotes public access and comment.

“Why would you be enacting legislation that essentially cuts the public out of the conversation?” asked Deeda Seed, from the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s clear that there are lots of provisions that would allow the body, the six-member body, to go into closed session, and that’s cause for concern.”

The bill is in contrast to a letter, signed by six neighboring states in September 2020, that requested that the Department of the Interior slow the Lake Powell Pipeline approval process. That letter points out potential conflict over how the state of Utah wants to divert and use Colorado River water.

“The [pipeline draft environmental impact statement] states that Utah is addressing those questions with the other Basin States, and to that end Utah and the other six states have met on a number of occasions. However, the referenced Compact issues and related substantive legal and operational issues remain unresolved,” the joint letter, signed by representatives of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California, reads.

The letter threatens legal challenges to the Lake Powell Pipeline if approved without collaborative input from the six states.

These issues come at a time when the Colorado River Basin is suffering a 20-year drought.The period between April and December of 2020 has been the driest on record since the building of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1964, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau put into place interim guidelines for how states should deal with droughts in 2007, which will expire in 2025.

Not only are water rights at the center of controversy at the state level, but within the southern Utah region as well.

Late last year, water managers from Kane and Washington County presented plans for the Cove Reservoir, a proposed $30 million water project just east of Zion National Park. The water managers state that the project will help local farmers and ranchers who have had to cut their growing seasons short in recent years due to the drought, potentially creating a 25% increase in crop production for alfalfa growers and generating a small amount of power for nearby communities.

Because the project purports to largely be for agricultural purposes, 75% of the funding would come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, some environmental groups say that the proposal mischaracterizes the project and that the real motive is development, not agriculture.

The proposed reservoir would require a 90-foot dam to hold 6,055 acre-feet of water redirected from the East Fork of the Virgin River, just west of the town of Orderville. However, only about a sixth of the water would stay in Kane County. The remaining water is slated to head to St. George in Washington County.

“The ‘agricultural’ lands in Washington County listed in [the environmental impact statement] to receive project water are actually municipal in nature, with many subdivisions, schools, churches, and commercial development having already been constructed inside the project lands,” wrote Zachary Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, in a joint letter with other environmental groups to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Frankel goes on to say that the Cove Reservoir is a water project for municipal development, cloaked in the skin of an agricultural project for the sake of subsidies.

For the project to qualify for federal funding from the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, 20% of the benefit of the project must be for agricultural purposes. Mike Noel, the Kane County Water Conservancy District general manager, claims “100%” of the water for the project will go to agricultural uses. However, Noel sees the purpose of the reservoir as flexible in the future.

“If there’s uses needed in the future, there’s a higher and better use, that water would be used by people to build homes and to use water in another way,” said Noel.

The local environmental group Conserve Southwest Utah also raised doubts about the scope of the project, stating that the current draft environmental assessment doesn’t adequately justify the $30 million of spending nor explain exactly where the water will go.

“[The current plan] is missing crucial information and many questions are unanswered,” wrote Thomas Butine, board president for Conserve Southwest Utah. “Therefore, the conclusion in the Plan-EA that there is no significant impact of the project on the environment has no merit.”

Conserve Southwest Utah has called for the water managers to produce a full environmental impact statement, a document much more involved and thorough than the current environmental assessment included with the reservoir proposal.