Cox says Utah, other Western states will have to cut back on Colorado River use

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center, on Thursday. Cox said states along the Colorado River Basin will have to cut back use just based on logistics.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center, on Thursday. Cox said states along the Colorado River Basin will have to cut back use just based on logistics. (Rick Egan)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox made it clear Thursday that Utah and other states will have to reduce the amount of water they take from the Colorado River in the foreseeable future as the West's ongoing drought persists.

The governor, speaking at his monthly PBS Utah briefing with Utah journalists Thursday, paraphrased comments from Gene Shawcroft, the chairman of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, about the future of the river.

"We know that we're never going to get what was our fair share, what we have been promised, because the hydrology is just not there," Cox said. "We certainly hope that it will be someday, but it is not right now."

He asserted that the Lower Basin states have used more than their allocation than the Upper Basin states, including Utah. At the same time, he pointed out that there's "not enough" for all the states' allocations based on current conditions and outlooks.

"We're all going to have to cut back," he said. "The question will be how are we going to fairly distribute that cutback among the states? Those are the conversations that are ongoing."

His comments come days after the Department of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation released their 24-month outlook of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which, combined, are at about 28% capacity as a result of ongoing drought over the past two decades. Their outlook included 2023 plans, which include a 21% reduction in water allocated to Arizona, an 8% reduction in water to Nevada and a 7% reduction in water allocated to Mexico.

The agencies also called on states to voluntarily reduce water consumption after asking states earlier this year to find ways to reduce consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet.

This summer's monsoons have helped drought conditions in Utah and the West, but drought conditions still persist throughout most of the region. The U.S. Drought Monitor's weekly report Thursday lists about two-thirds of the Beehive State in at least extreme drought, which is down nearly 14 percentage points from last week's report. All parts of the state remain in at least a moderate drought.

About 70% of the entire West is listed in at least a moderate drought, with another 16% considered "abnormally dry" at the moment. At least half of the region, which includes 11 states, is experiencing at least severe drought conditions.

This plays into trends of the past two decades. Christopher Cutler, the manager of the Water and Power Services Division at the Bureau of Reclamation, said Tuesday that the Colorado River Basin is in the middle of its driest 23-year stretch on record. Scientists confirmed earlier this year that this two-decade span, referred to as a "megadrought," is the region's worst in at least 1,200 years.

All of this could also play into new growth in Utah and across the West.

Cox has in the past supported the Lake Powell Pipeline, which conservation groups have pushed back against. The project would create a pipeline from Lake Powell to southwest Utah, providing more water for one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country.

The current situation has made it difficult to move forward. The governor pointed out that there are two ways to guarantee water for every new building permit in the state, which is a state law: new sources of water, like new reservoirs, or reducing water use per capita. Right now, the latter is the available option — though Cox said he's hopeful new options will emerge in the future.

"Our ability to grow — not just in southern Utah but throughout Utah — will be strictly dependant on our ability to make sure we have enough water available," he said. "I do suspect that if the drought continues in the future, there probably will be a few pockets where (pausing new building permits) might be the case."

When asked about piping water into the state, whether to accommodate Utah's growth or to provide water to the shrinking Great Salt Lake, Cox added that he's not sure what the feasibility is. He said that's why studies are being done to figure out possibilities or even costs.

But given the region's issues over the past two decades, Utah isn't alone in having these types of conservations. Drought has also emerged at times across other states. In fact, the U.S. Drought Monitor lists about two-thirds of the entire country as "abnormally dry" and nearly half in at least some level of drought.

It's why he believes any water pipeline in Utah would have to be a part of some type of network involving multiple states.

"We're not on an island here. This is not a Utah drought, this is a Western United States drought," he said. "We're not the only ones looking at these questions. Nevada, California, Arizona — we're all trying to understand, are there other ways to do this?"

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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