From The Utah Independent (Lisa Rutherford):
The truly troubling thing about the Lake Powell Pipeline water right is that it is “junior” to an earlier right that would have supplied water to the Bonneville Unit of the Central Utah Project and also junior to all other water rights with earlier dates.
According to a 2011 letter from the state engineer, the state agreed, in order to protect the Central Utah Project, to subordinate the Lake Powell Pipeline water right to the Bureau of Reclamation’s rights for the Central Utah Project by making the right junior in priority to the Bonneville Unit of the Central Utah Project. Yes, it’s all very complex!
When the water right was planned for the Central Utah Project Ultimate Phase, claims were made that are eerily reminiscent of what we’re hearing today about the dire need for the water in southern Utah. Back then, in 1965, water was planned for an area where population and related industrial developments were expanding rapidly. The area included Salt Lake and Utah Counties, and according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 1965 Central Utah Project Ultimate Phase Inventory of Available Data, “it is anticipated that the municipal and industrial water demand will far exceed the local supplies available.” The paper goes on to say more:
“Water is the limiting factor in the future progress of the Central Utah area. The area’s continued natural resource development and economic and population growth are assured with the water the project would make available. Without such expanded water supplies a rigid ceiling would be imposed on Central Utah‘s future growth. In the Bonneville Basin where the water requirement is the greatest, undeveloped water supplies are the shortest.”
Amazingly, we have been hearing this same song here in Washington County. And yet the area for which the Central Utah Project Ultimate Phase water was planned has continued to grow robustly without this water so far. Since that area has “senior” right to the water, should it ever need it, will it someday call in that obligation?
A comment from Utah’s State Engineer Kent Jones helps to explain. Remember, he’s talking about water rights, not necessarily real water, and his comment doesn’t address reduced Colorado River flows: “The Colorado River, for example, holds 1.4 million acre-feet of water for Utah to put to use. There are applications approved for more than 2 million acre-feet, and about one half of that is currently in use.”
Jones said the imbalance has yet to be a problem because the water has not been developed — but the struggle will come with time, and those holding “junior” rights will go wanting.
The Lake Powell Pipeline water right from the Ultimate Phase of the Central Utah Project may no longer be present in system, even if Utah has a “paper” water right. But will the “wet” water actually be there to flow through the pipe?
A few facts from a presentation by the Upper Colorado River Commission help highlight Lake Powell’s current situation:
—Six of the last 17 years of inflows into Lake Powell were less than 5 million acre-feet.
—Above-average inflows into Lake Powell have occurred only 4 years since 2000.
—Lake Powell’s average unregulated inflow 1981–2010 was 10.83 million acre-feet.
—Three of the four lowest years on record have occurred during the 17-year drought with 2012 and 2013 being the driest consecutive two-year period in recorded history.
Utah’s dependence on its remaining Colorado River share carries many risks, bad political decisions not being the least of those. The water may not be present in the river system due to diminishing flows from rising temperatures, over allocation, junior priority of the Lake Powell Pipeline’s water right, unsettled Federal Reserve Water Rights claims, and continued pressure from population growth in the west. This year’s Lake Powell inflow forecast is 2.80 million acre-feet, or 39 percent of average. This would be the fifth lowest April–July inflow on record for Lake Powell dating back to 1964, when it was created. Several billion dollars of our tax dollars are resting on our leaders’ decision regarding this project’s funding — money that could be used for other real needs. While leaders focus citizen attention on the Virgin River as our only source of water in Washington County (forgetting to mention our hearty Navajo aquifer), the Virgin River is currently below 25 percent of average,— not 39 percent, as is the case with Lake Powell.
Climate change predictions indicate that our area will require changes in how we deal with water. 2014 research by Ault et al. indicates that the risk of future multidecade megadroughts is more substantial than previously realized. Our Pine Valley Mountains will receive less snow pack. Heavy torrential rains followed by long dry periods will be the new norm. New ideas are needed to deal with this situation. How do we capture that water rather than rely on a risky source 140 miles away? All citizens should be asking themselves, given the information I’ve provided, whether they consider Utah’s remaining Colorado River water right to be secure and worth spending several billion tax dollars on. The right may actually be an even bigger risk than the ballooning cost. Politicians can always figure out ways to get more money out of our pockets, but they are not so successful with Mother Nature.