The Water Right for Lake Powell Pipeline is Not Secure

Utah water agencies allege the Lake Powell Pipeline water right is the most secure on the Colorado River. It is not.

Colorado River Compact

Colorado River scholars Eric Kuhn and John Fleck wrote in their recent book, Science Be Dammed, that, even as early as 1922, scientists knew that flows of the Colorado River were overestimated and there wasn’t enough water for the allocations. Boosters for agriculture and urban development ignored them, resulting in problems that continue today.

In the end, the seven southwestern states of the Colorado River watershed—California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming—agreed to allocate what they thought was a safe, average, annual, and “natural” flow of the Colorado River, ~17 million acre-feet per year (MAFY) at Lee Ferry, Arizona which is the boundary between the Upper and Lower Basin states. Historically, however, annual flows have averaged only 13-14 MAFY, with some reports as low as 12.5 MAFY.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has documented that there is more water allocated from the Colorado River than the river delivers annually, even without considering the effects of future climate change. Releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead continue to exceed inflows, and the over-allocation and overuse have created a functional deficit that is draining the reservoirs. Due to climate change, scientists predict that there will be even less water in the future to fill the reservoirs. As a result, Utah will find its claim to its remaining share of the Colorado River is only a “paper,” or theoretical, water right—the water is not in the river.

Lake Powell Pipeline’s Junior Water Right Status

Utah faces an additional challenge because of the junior status of the Lake Powell Pipeline water right. As the river flows decline, this water right will be subordinate to senior water right holders. This water right doesn’t even have a high enough priority to guarantee the water will be available long enough to pay off the project. Officials apparently never did their due diligence on this water right.

Water right holders senior to the Lake Powell Pipeline’s water right include:

  • Northern Ute Tribe (Uinta Basin)
  • Navajo and other tribal rights
  • Lower Basin states (claim the first 7.5 MAFY of the Colorado River)
  • Mexico (granted 1.5 MAFY by treaty)
  • Other federal reserved water rights, not yet determined
  • Other water rights established before 1958
  • Central Utah Project, Bonneville Unit (supplies Wasatch Front)

Utah’s Water Exchange with BOR to Buy Water for the LPP

The Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) Act directed the Bureau of Reclamation to build the Flaming Gorge Dam and the Glen Canyon Dam, among others. The dams were built to capture the extra spring run-off so that the Upper Basin states could divert their water at upstream sites and still have enough water to meet the Upper Basin’s 1922 Compact obligations at Lee Ferry to provide water to the Lower Basin states and Mexico.

Since CRSP was built by the federal government, and because Utah agreed to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Utah has to buy water from the BOR for the Lake Powell Pipeline. One of the purposes of the draft EIS for the Lake Powell Pipeline is to approve Utah’s request to buy water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and transfer it to Lake Powell for the pipeline.

As part of the Lake Powell Pipeline Water Exchange Contract with the Bureau of Reclamation, Utah must supply to the Green River an equal amount of the water it receives from Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Utah’s exchange proposal is to use “excess spring run-off” from the Green River tributaries. However, that same spring runoff is already being used by the CRSP, the Central Utah Project, and other senior water rights holders. Moreover, these excess run-offs are likely to be reduced significantly by climate change.

Upper Basin Water Right Used in Lower Basin

Another hurdle for Utah stems from its participation in the Compact as an Upper Basin state. The Lake Powell Pipeline water right would transfer Upper Basin water, from above Lee Ferry, for use in the Lower Basin (Virgin River watershed). Arizona’s Department of Water Resources formally objected in 2017, noting that this transfer violates the Colorado River Compact. Such a transfer would therefore require the approval of the U.S. Congress and all other Colorado River Basin states. In times of shortage this seems unlikely, making this water right even less secure.

Climate Change

Utah is not responsibly considering the risk that climate change will reduce water availability. The risks are explained in “The Twenty-First Century Colorado River Hot Drought and Implications for The Future,” by Udall and Overpeck 2017. Click Here

Contrived Needs

Finally, the state and the local water district have introduced a new requirement for a “second source” of water to support our county. Given that the Lake Powell Pipeline is unnecessary due to our profligate water usage, local supply potential, the risk of the water right, and the current cost of the pipeline, the cost of seeking a “second source” of water from an overallocated Colorado River seems an unreasonable burden to place on the county—and our state.