Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Colorado River Basin States: What New Water Shortage Plans Could Mean For Utah

Photo of Virgin River in St. George, Utah
Judy Fahys / KUER
State and local officials say fast-growing St. George needs another water source besides the Virgin River. Officials want to tap into the Colorado River via the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline. But some critics say there's not enough water in the basin.

The seven states in the Colorado River Basin face a deadline this week to submit water shortage plans to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Utah’s Division of Water Resources has already teamed up with other Upper Basin States — Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — on contingency plans, but the federal government wants to be sure that the entire basin has a workable solution in the event of a severe water shortage declaration that could come as soon as next year.

Luke Runyon of the radio station KUNC in Greeley, Colo., has been following developments closely, including what’s at stake for the billion-dollar Lake Powell Pipeline in southwestern Utah. He recently spoke with KUER’s Judy Fahys about the pressure on states to come up with a strategy that really works.

Judy Fahys: What’s prompting this concern about water-shortage plans right now?

Luke Runyon: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is the federal agency that manages a lot of dams and reservoirs in the West, and the commissioner for the bureau, at a meeting in Las Vegas, told water managers that they had to finish these plans by the end of January. It's adding pressure to these water managers to actually finish these plans, and come up with a way to cut back water use and better manage this river.

JF: Why is it relevant for a state like Utah?

LR: You have a lot of these big controversial water projects in Utah and Colorado and Wyoming that are trying to tap into the last few drops of the river's water. And in the lower basin it's kind of the opposite story. States further down have been using above and beyond their share of the [Colorado] river, and are now having really difficult discussions on how to cut back their use and how to be less reliant on the river.

So there's sort of this cognitive dissonance that's playing out in the whole watershed, where water managers are saying over and over that we need to figure out how to live with less water from the river. But then, at the same time, they're investing in these projects that are going to drop more straws into it and possibly stress it even further.

JF: Do you have any idea what all of this could mean for say the Lake Powell Pipeline?

LR: It could be quite significant. There's a looming threat of a federal shortage declaration that could be coming as early as 2020, and that could put the kibosh on a project like the Lake Powell Pipeline.

It's going to be a lot harder, I think, to make the case for building some of these big water infrastructure projects when it's not clear that there will be water to send through that pipe. And, I think, there's some water officials in Utah who are taking it pretty seriously.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.