Feds Crack Down on California to Protect Utah Water Rights

Feds Crack Down on California to Protect Utah Water Rights

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Environment Specialist John Hollenhorst reporting

The answer to Utah's growing appetite for water may lie across the border, in Wyoming.

Oddly enough, that's one reason Utah is watching closely as a New Year's Eve showdown approaches in the state of California.

The federal government has put California on notice: Sign an agreement to reduce Colorado River water use by midnight New Year's Eve, or face an involuntary cutback beginning January 1.

So how does this affect water plans in Utah and Wyoming?

We're talking about the same water -- the stuff that's in the Colorado River and its tributaries.

Will it be used to fuel growth in this part of the country? Or will it water crops and cities in southern California?

Instead of fighting over the feisty waters of the Colorado River, the seven states that rely on it agreed 80 years ago to divide it up.

Almost ever since, California has been taking more than its share.

"California developed far faster than the upper Basin states," says Rick Gold with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

And the other states in the Colorado River Basin didn't say anything about it.

"Principally because they didn't have a use for it," Gold says.

Simple geography makes it especially hard for Utah to use its share of the water.

Our major cities are outside the Colorado River's well-defined drainage boundary.

"The people are here, and the water's over here. And that's been the age-old problem," says Bob Morgan, Utah's director of Natural Resources.

Lately, state experts have been studying a pipeline to cross the divide.

It might carry water from the Green River in Wyoming to the Weber, Provo, or Bear Rivers in Utah.

"The value of doing that would be taking good, high-quality water that's in the upper drainage and bringing it to the Wasatch Front," Morgan says.

"We know that within 20 years there's going to be an extra million people on this Wasatch Front. They all need a drink of water. They all need to flush their toilets," he says.

Utah can legally claim water in Wyoming because the Green River is a tributary of the Colorado.

Similarly, water from Lake Powell might someday go by pipeline to feed growth in St. George.

"The Colorado River compact guarantees Utah the use of that water," Gold says.

Which brings us back to the fact that California is using that water right now. A negotiated plan gives the state a soft landing: 15 years to cut back.

Interior Secretary Gail Norton has told California: sign the agreement by next Tuesday or the gravy train is over.

"Yes, she's going to deliver them their entitlement. And no more. Unless this quantification settlement agreement is signed by the end of this year," Gold says.

The pain of reducing consumption has triggered a bitter political battle.

"A civil war within the communities of California," Morgan says.

And is Utah just an interested bystander?

"A very interested bystander," he ways.

As long as California cuts back eventually, it may not matter much to Utah if that happens next week, or after a 15-year phase-out.

It will likely be at least that long before Utah has a major pipeline project ready to go.

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