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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Environmentalists say Upper Colorado River Basin states are overusing water

Photo of a lake surrounded by red rock
Courtesy of the National Park Service
Lake Powell is currently less than 30% full. Environmentalists are concerned about the hydrology of the Colorado River, which millions of people in the West rely on.

Environmental groups claim Utah and two other upper basin states — Colorado and New Mexico — are overusing their share of water from the Colorado River.

The Utah Rivers Council released a report Monday saying the Colorado River’s flows have dropped about 20% since 2000. The report outlines that the hydrology of the river hasn’t stopped the three states from pursuing large water projects.

These projects impact millions of people in the seven basin states, Native American tribes and Mexico who rely on the river, according to Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians.

“Any additional diversions from the Colorado River at this point will fundamentally harm not only the overall health of the people, the cultures and ecosystems, but all of the current water users,” Pelz said.

Utah Rivers Council released a report outlining Upper Colorado River Basin deficits. They found three states are overusing their shares.
Courtesy of Utah Rivers Council
Utah Rivers Council released a report outlining Upper Colorado River Basin deficits. They found three states are overusing their shares.

Nearly 100 years ago, the Colorado River Compact divided the water between western states. However, it overestimated how much water was actually in the system, according to Zach Frankel, executive director with Utah Rivers Council. Now states are operating at a deficit, which is worsening with climate change.

Utah’s proposed diversion is the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline, which would divert Colorado River water to be used in Washington County. State and local leaders behind the project argue the water is needed for the quickly growing population.

Frankel said state leaders are pursuing the project because they think they have excess water rights to the dwindling river.

“This idea that there is a surplus of water runs counter to the intuition that most people experience when they visit the Colorado River,” he said.

The report includes scenarios of the river dropping to 30-40% of average flows. The deficits states are already operating at will “grow much worse,” Frankel said.

“It's really time for the Upper [Colorado] Basin [states] to get serious and stop proposing these new water diversions because they threaten all existing users in the state and all existing users in the system,” he said.

The report comes as the Colorado River Water Users Association meets this week to discuss issues and projects along the river.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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