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KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

Renegotiations Related To The Colorado River Are Coming Up, How is Utah Approaching Them?

Colorado River in Utah aerial view
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The Colorado River serves around 40 million people in the West. Stakeholders are going to have to renegotiate how the declining river is managed, and Utah is hoping to claim more of its allocation.

Over the next five years, states that rely on the Colorado River for water will be renegotiating how to manage the drought stricken river, and Utah is gearing up for these conversations.

To talk about how the state is preparing for talks related to the river, KUER Southwest News bureau reporter Lexi Peery joined All Things Considered host Caroline Ballard.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: What exactly is on the table here?

Lexi Peery: So how the river is managed under this prolonged drought is what we're going to be talking about. But to understand where we're at, we need to take a step back and talk about the Colorado River Compact, which was signed in 1922. It split the river up into Upper and Lower Basin States. The Upper Basin is made up of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. The Lower Basin is California, Nevada and Arizona. There have been various contracts since 1922, but the compact is really the cornerstone for water law in the West. Right now, the area is having to deal with this drought we've been experiencing for decades, and we're also having to rethink our approach of dealing out water needs between basin states, Native American tribes and Mexico.

CB: Utah is one of these stakeholders. Who will be leading the charge for the state?

LP: Gene Shawcroft was recently appointed by Gov. Spencer Cox to lead the state's efforts, and he's part of the Upper Colorado River Commission. He'll work with the six other states and the federal government. A little bit about Shawcroft, he's spent over 30 years in water policy in Utah, and he's also the general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

CB: You recently sat down with Shawcroft to talk about his new role. What did he tell you about his priorities heading into negotiations?

LP: He talked a lot about balancing the needs of development and managing it with less water.

Gene Shawcroft: I think it's important for Utah to be able to use its water when it chooses to do so, and I think it's important for each state to have that same capacity. Obviously, wise use of water is critical. Conservation is critical. But yet development has occurred at different times in each state at a different rate.

CB: What does he mean by development has occurred at different times in different rates?

LP: What he's hinting at there is the tension between Upper and Lower Basin States. Upper Basin States like Utah haven't even used their full allocation under original agreements. Shawcroft is hoping for flexibility for Utah to use more of it’s allocation and develop more water resources. The state has some projects in mind, like the Lake Powell Pipeline. That would pipe water from Lake Powell to Washington County, which is quickly growing. The project itself is under federal review right now, but it's going to be a big part of how Utah approaches renegotiations.

CB: What all is Utah doing in the lead up to these renegotiations?

LP: Actually, right now, there's a bill being discussed in the legislature to create Utah's own Colorado River Authority.

CB: OK, so there's a lot of different players in this and different government groups. There's an Upper Colorado Commission and now this authority. What would the Colorado River Authority do?

LP: This would be a six member group that would assess what Utah's goals are heading into negotiations, and Shawcroft is one of those members. The authority bill has flown through the Legislature, but critics are really worried about the transparency of it all. So I asked him about it.

Gene Shawcroft: I see that the primary role of the authority is to bring more people with expertise to the table to help guide decisions made in the state of Utah. Legislation provides for advisory councils. These advisory groups will be an opportunity for many people with various interests to participate as they advise the authority. The only time that the authority will be able to have a discussion behind closed doors is when we're talking about specific either negotiation practices or strategy that would be harmful to Utah if it were discussed in the open.

CB: He's saying they need closed door meetings so they don't show their hand, so they can keep a poker face?

LP: Right. He mentions cooperating with other states, but of course, there's that tension that we talked about. There's also tension within the state with environmental groups. They've long criticized Utah's leaders for their lack of transparency in all things related to water policy.

CB: What else have you heard from critics of Utah's approach?

LP: These environmental groups say the priority really should be about conserving the water we already have developed. I asked Shawcroft how he’s thinking about conservation.

Gene Shawcroft: There's no question we have got to use less water. If our population is to double, which is the projection within the next 40 to 50 years, there isn't a doubling of our water supply available. And so we will have to be wiser about how we use our water.

LP: He told me the state needs to invest more in technology and educating people about conservation. And to be clear, the effects of climate change are already being seen in the region. Reservoirs are below half full and most of the region is in extreme or exceptional drought right now, and climate experts don't expect it to get better any time soon. In reality, we really need to prepare for a future with less water.

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