Utah desert farms thrive on water from the shrinking Colorado River

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (AP) — The nation’s second-driest state, Utah, doesn’t supply much water to the Colorado River as it flows from the headwaters of the Rocky Mountains through Canyonlands National Park to the lake. Powell.

Utah has a unique position in the middle of the river basin, geographically and politically, and it wields less influence than thirstier, more populous states like Colorado, California, and Arizona.

Its sprawling urban centers along the Wasatch Front, home to 80% of the state’s population, lie outside the Colorado River Basin and rely less on the river than cities like Phoenix or Las Vegas. Only 27% of the water used in Utah comes from the Colorado River, with the majority of the state’s water supply coming from other rivers that feed into the Great Salt Lake.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as we approach the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact. The Associated Press, Colorado Sun, Albuquerque Journal, Salt Lake Tribune, Arizona Daily Star and Nevada Independent are working together to explore pressures on the river in 2022.


Under a 1948 agreement, Utah is entitled to 23% of the water used by the four states in the upper Colorado River basin – receiving less water than Colorado but more than Wyoming or New -Mexico – and it typically uses about 1 million acre-feet of Colorado water every year.

For decades, Utah has sought to develop diversions of the river by pursuing projects like the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline, which would transport 86,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir to St. George and surrounding areas. But the state’s use has remained relatively stable since 1994 despite its rapidly growing population.

However, twenty-two years of drought in the basin prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to exert more pressure on Utah and the other six Colorado River states to reduce their use and abandon development plans, and States are preparing to renegotiate water use guidelines. which expire in 2026.

Utah’s designated representative in the talks, Utah’s Colorado River Commissioner Gene Shawcroft, said the drought has made planning difficult.

“It’s hard to forecast four or five years if you can’t see past next spring,” Shawcroft said. “Part of our challenge from the start has been to really focus on the renegotiations when faced with such a critical day-to-day situation.”

Shawcroft said Utah is committed to planning for 2026 while participating in more immediate water negotiations, such as the Bureau of Reclamation’s call on basin water users to reduce their use until to 30% next year to stabilize rapid depletion levels in Lakes Powell and Hydromel.

Utah is aggressively pursuing conservation measures through an extensive series of state laws passed this year, Shawcroft added, including a law that allows farmers to opt out of irrigation without losing their water rights. ‘water. But he said restoring the system to balance will likely require the biggest reductions to come from the largest water users in downstream states.

Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, said that since 2001 agriculture has used more than two-thirds of the water in Utah’s Colorado River. Another 15% is pumped out of the basin, mainly to feed the Wasatch Front.

More than 300,000 acres of land in the state is irrigated with water from the Colorado River, primarily to grow forage crops to feed livestock like alfalfa.

“Given the fact that 70 percent of the Colorado River’s total water is used by (agriculture),” Schmidt said, “it’s hard to imagine that agriculture won’t suffer the most significant cuts. “

But reductions in water use don’t have to hurt farmers’ bank accounts. “Farming could very well be fairly compensated for setting aside their fields,” he said.

Environmental groups like the Utah Rivers Council have pointed to Utah’s residential water usage – the highest in the basin, per capita – and low water rates as evidence that greater conservation in this area is possible and necessary.

The potential decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in Utah over the next decade, which use 6% of the Colorado River’s water, could also free up some of the supply for conservation or other uses.

Another consideration is tribal water rights in Utah, which must be satisfied by the state’s share of Colorado River water.

A court decree recognized the Ute Indian tribe’s right to 144,000 acre-feet of water, but the tribe can receive significantly more water if it settles its water rights claims with the state and government federal.

The Utah portion of the Navajo Nation settled its water rights in May and has a recognized right to 81,500 acre-feet.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said his administration’s priority is to supply the thousands of Navajo homes in Utah that still lack running water, but he said the tribe may consider renting the rest of its water to other users.

“If we’re going to sit on paper water, as they say,” Nez said, “and we’re not able to use it, we might as well rent it to those who need it.”

All of these factors will likely have a role to play as basin states renegotiate guidelines ahead of 2026.

Utah’s goals in future discussions, according to Shawcroft, will be to push for greater adaptability while ensuring that states share water surpluses or reductions equitably as availability changes.

“I think we have to be resilient across a wide range of flows,” he said, “whether lower…or higher.”

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