California, Nevada and Arizona to cut Colorado River water use — Utah says it's about time

A boat cruises in Hemenway Harbor on Lake Mead on Saturday, April 10. Both the Colorado and the Virgin Rivers empty into the lake.

A boat cruises in Hemenway Harbor on Lake Mead on Saturday, April 10. Both the Colorado and the Virgin Rivers empty into the lake. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — On Wednesday, three states announced a voluntary agreement to scale back their use of the Colorado River.

California, Arizona and Nevada, which including Mexico constitute the lower Colorado River Basin, will try to keep an additional 1 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead for the next two years.

The agreement, dubbed the 500+ Plan, goes further than the 2019 drought contingency plan which led to states voluntarily giving up water to reduce the strain on Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

The plan intends to preserve an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead in 2022, and again in 2023. It will require funding from the lower basin states — roughly $40 million from Arizona, and $20 million each from Nevada, California and the Central Arizona Project, which runs a canal system to transport water from the Colorado River to Arizona, according to The Associated Press. The federal government will match the funds, bringing the total to $200 million.

On Thursday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said it was past time for the lower basin states to scale back water use, telling reporters it's "not a secret" that Arizona, California and Nevada have been drawing too much from the Colorado River for years.

"The lower basin has been overusing their portion of the Colorado River for years. Everyone knows that ... The upper basin states have absolutely been underutilizing their amounts compared to the lower basin states, and California being the most egregious example of that," the governor said during his monthly PBS Utah news conference.

The agreement, and Cox's comments, come after a lengthy report from the Utah Rivers Council that alleges Utah is actually using more water than its allotted under the Colorado River Compact.

For years, the state has been operating under the assumption it has a surplus of water — reinforced Thursday by Cox, who said "we have data that shows that we are not using our full allotment."

But the report says that assumption is based on outdated numbers that don't account for the nearly 20% decline in flow over the last 20 years. Taking that decline into consideration, the upper basin, which comprises Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, is currently in a 500,000 acre-foot water deficit. With the exception of Wyoming, each state is contributing to the deficit.

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If the deficit persists, the lower basin states and Mexico could demand the upper basin cut its water use. The lower basin is allotted a fixed amount from the Colorado River, while the upper basin states are given a percentage.

Cox says he has "seen a preliminary draft of that report. We're going to be looking at the underlying assumptions."

What the governor is certain about, however, is that the Colorado River is changing. Every state will need to make some concessions to preserve the river, which supports roughly 40 million people across the West, and swaths of the American and Mexican agricultural industries.

"There is complete agreement on that. We know that there is going to be less water in the Colorado River for everyone," Cox told reporters Thursday, noting that new negotiations over the law governing the river are looming. The Colorado River's current management guidelines will expire in 2026.

"There will be broad agreement ... as we work to apportion what that new hydrology of the river looks like, and that means all of us are going to have to reexamine where we are and how much we're using," Cox said. "That also means we're going to have to be creative in trying to restore the river basin, and taking proactive steps and investing in ways to improve tributaries and improve our waterways so we can get more water where it needs to go."

An update on Utah's drought

The Utah Division of Water Resources released it's drought update Thursday, and despite a wintery start to December, the state needs more above-average snowstorms to fill its reservoirs after a dry November.

"This past week the snow water equivalent — or how much water is in the snow — was lower than any time in the past 30 years, but this last storm system brought us closer to average," Brian Steed, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, said in a news release.

Some key takeaways from the drought report:

  • Most of Utah has been downgraded from exceptional drought — almost 79% remains in extreme drought.
  • Statewide snow water equivalent is 2.8 inches. "This is 74% of median for this time of year and 18% of median peak, which usually occurs around the first of April," according to the Division of Water Resources.
  • Utah reservoirs remain low — 39 of the state's largest 45 reservoirs are below 55% capacity. This time last year, the reservoirs were at about 62%.
  • Soil moisture is 7.6% above median for this time of year. Cox called that "great news. That means when the snow we get melts, it will go straight to the reservoirs."

Drought was the focus of Cox's recent budget announcement, which he said includes a half-billion dollars for water infrastructure and storage. On Thursday when asked about the prospect of constructing new dams and reservoirs, Cox said it's still in the preliminary phase.

"That water storage isn't just above ground in reservoirs. I don't know how many reservoirs will be built, we have a very robust planning process going on right now," he said.

Cox touted the state's existing water infrastructure as a reason Utah hasn't had to take steps to scale back its use of the Colorado River.

"Utah hasn't been as serious about conservation as some other states, like maybe Arizona and Nevada — that is absolutely true. I think it's verifiably true that we haven't done as much when it comes to conservation," he said. "And the reason for that is that we have a surplus in water because of the investments that were made here and not made other places."

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Kyle Dunphey

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