The Colorado River’s flows are drastically over allocated and an 18-year drought from climate change makes the $3.2 billion Lake Powell Pipeline an extraordinarily risky investment for Utah taxpayers. Under new water shortage agreements, California, Arizona and Nevada are preparing to walk away from an astonishing 533,000 acre-feet of their Colorado River water supply.1 But Utah is recklessly proposing to divert another 86,000 acre-feet out of the river, as if 30 million people downstream won’t notice or care.

A Drying Watershed 

As reservoir levels plummet and drought conditions persist throughout the Colorado River Basin, it’s clear there isn’t enough water to go around. Over the last 18 years, the Colorado River’s flows have declined as mountain snowpacks have diminished in the headwaters of the basin. The historic multi-state agreement that divides up the river’s flows among seven states, Mexico and Indian Tribes is thought of as though there is 16.5 million acre-feet of water that can be diverted out of the Colorado River every year. But this isn’t the case.

The 30-year average of Colorado River flows into Lake Powell is currently just 10.8 million acre-feet of water.2 A shortfall of water is creating problems across the Southwest that downstream water users are scrambling to adapt to, making approval of the Lake Powell Pipeline much less likely. Even if the Pipeline is approved and constructed, it doesn’t mean there will be water for it, because 30 million people downstream have a right to Colorado River water, and they are already using it.

 
Not Enough to Go Around    The Colorado River Compact divides the flows of the river among the 7 U.S. states, Mexico and Indian Tribes based on a total of 16.5 million acre feet. But the 30-year average shows there is actually just ~11 million acre-feet of water in the river, and this average is continuing to decline as air temperatures increase.

Not Enough to Go Around

The Colorado River Compact divides the flows of the river among the 7 U.S. states, Mexico and Indian Tribes based on a total of 16.5 million acre feet. But the 30-year average shows there is actually just ~11 million acre-feet of water in the river, and this average is continuing to decline as air temperatures increase.

 

Water Supply Cutbacks 

Water supply shortage is imminent, so the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada are preparing for major reductions in their water supplies and have agreed to walk away from portions of their Colorado River water.  This extraordinary action has never happened before in 95 years and demonstrates how concerned millions of people are about Colorado River water supplies.  

 
The table shows how much water the Lower Basin states have agreed to go without as part of an unprecedented Basin-wide drought agreement.

The table shows how much water the Lower Basin states have agreed to go without as part of an unprecedented Basin-wide drought agreement.

 

To begin, Arizona and Nevada are preparing to walk away from 533,000 acre-feet of their Colorado River water supply.3 Additional cutbacks in the Lower Basin will follow, as the level of Lake Mead continues to drop. There simply isn’t enough water to go around.

Water Cutbacks Will Increase As Reservoir Levels Drop

Recent modeling of the Colorado River’s flows by the Bureau of Reclamation paints a grim picture for millions of Lower Basin residents. The Bureau forecasts a 90% chance Lake Mead will drop below a critical threshold over the next 2 years4, where mandatory cutbacks for downstream water users will be enforced.

 
The Bureau of Reclamation forecasts a 90% chance of Lake Mead dropping below crucial shortage levels in the next two years.

The Bureau of Reclamation forecasts a 90% chance of Lake Mead dropping below crucial shortage levels in the next two years.

 

Reductions in water deliveries are a bitter pill for Lower Basin water users to swallow, especially when new diversions like the Lake Powell Pipeline are being proposed for upstream communities that don’t need the water.  Residents of Washington and Kane Counties use more than twice as much water per-person as the average American, because their tax collections lead to the cheapest water rates in the American West.

Yet surprisingly, when faced with criticism over the lack of need for the Lake Powell Pipeline, spending advocates in Utah claim we should build it anyway and use our share of the Colorado River before other states take it.  Utah is entitled to a percentage of the Colorado River’s flows, but that doesn’t mean we are guaranteed a specific quantity.  That’s why the water may not really exist for the Pipeline and the river’s flows will only continue to diminish as air temperatures rise.

Water Flow Declines In Upper Basin States 

Like Lake Mead, Lake Powell is also at historically low water levels and just 58 feet above the water level were hydropower production is threatened.5 The Lake Powell Pipeline will take even more water out of the Colorado River and hasten the decline of water levels in Lake Powell, accelerating the timeframe for when the reservoir stops generating electricity. The Upper Basin States’ Drought Contingency Plan makes it clear that water leaders are worried about declining flows into Lake Powell. Several water supply forecasts show how close we are to Lake Powell water levels dropping below the minimum level needed to generate hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam.

The graph below by Hydros Consulting Inc. shows a hypothetical multi-year drought where Lake Powell water levels drop so low that hydropower generation becomes impossible. These consultants ran a hypothetical analysis looking at three droughts that occurred in the last 30 years: the 1988 drought; the 2001 drought and the 2012 drought. All three projections show that if we experience any of these three droughts again starting in 2019, Glen Canyon Dam will not be able to generate electricity and $180 million in revenues will dry up. This will strip funding from science and river management and raise power costs for tribes, cities and others all over the southwest.

The graph below was commissioned for the CRWCD Board. These consultants ran a hypothetical analysis looking at three droughts that occurred in the last 30 years: 1988 drought; the 2001 drought and the 2012 drought. All three projections show that if we experience any of these three droughts again starting in 2018, Glen Canyon Dam will not be able to generate electricity.

The graph below was commissioned for the CRWCD Board. These consultants ran a hypothetical analysis looking at three droughts that occurred in the last 30 years: 1988 drought; the 2001 drought and the 2012 drought. All three projections show that if we experience any of these three droughts again starting in 2018, Glen Canyon Dam will not be able to generate electricity.

Upper Basin states like Utah aren’t immune from water shortage impacts on the Colorado River. As air temperatures have increased due to climate change, diminished mountain snowpack and changing precipitation patterns have reduced flows in the Colorado River, which are predicted to decline by as much as 20-30% by mid- century.6 The burden of diminished Colorado River flows resulting from climate change will be born by all the Colorado River Basin states, including Utah.

As mentioned above, Colorado River flows into Lake Powell average just 10.8 million acre-feet of water a year and this average will continue to drop because of climate change. Because the Upper Basin is required to deliver an average of 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the Lower Basin every year7 regardless of how much water flows into Lake Powell, that means that some years there will be no water left for the Lake Powell Pipeline. The Division of Water Resources has admitted to federal regulators this scenario is possible, but they hope nobody in Utah is paying attention.8

When there is no water for the Lake Powell Pipeline, it will create an economic disaster for ratepayers and taxpayers who are on the hook for the Division’s reckless $3 billion of spending. Generations of Utahns will be saddled by this debt.

The Utah Division of Water Resources is not informing decision makers and the public about the many risks that come with tapping into an overstretched and diminishing Colorado River water supply. Many downstream water users who are being forced to walk away from their share of the Colorado River have opposed the Lake Powell Pipeline in the permitting process, citing palpable concerns about water supplies.

Are Lower Basin Water Users Opposed to the Lake Powell Pipeline?

A shortage declaration on the Colorado River has only been avoided the last few years because the Bureau has been letting additional water out of Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge to boost the level of Lake Mead.  As a result of dropping water levels, scores of concerned stakeholders from across the Colorado River Basin have intervened in the Lake Powell Pipeline federal permitting process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  

One example of this intervention came from Agricultural producers in Pinal County, Arizona, who will be hit with some of the first water supply cuts.  This county intervened in the Lake Powell Pipeline, raising serious concerns:

"Pinal County is concerned that large diversions of water from Lake Powell, such as the one being considered here, could cause or contribute to water level decline in Lake Mead which will lead to water curtailments to Pinal County farmers and other water users sooner than they would otherwise occur.”

It’s clear that water users across the Basin are concerned about the impacts the Lake Powell Pipeline will have on their water supply, and these impacts won’t lessen as flows continue to decline in coming years.  

Citations

  1. Agreement Concerning Colorado River Drought Contingency Management And Operations, Final Review Draft. Table 1 - DCP Contributions and 2007 Interim Guidelines Shortages by State, 10-5-2018

  2. US Bureau of Reclamation. Lake Powell Unregulated Inflow. Water Year 2019 Forecast. https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/gcd.html

  3. Agreement Concerning Colorado River Drought Contingency Management And Operations, Final Review Draft. Table 1 - DCP Contributions and 2007 Interim Guidelines Shortages by State, 10-5-2018

  4. ADWRe and CAP Briefing on Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, June 28, 2018

  5. US Bureau of Reclamation. Accessed 12/18/2018 https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/gcd.html

  6. Udall, B. and J. Overpeck (2017), Hot Drought: The twenty-first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future. Water Resources Research, 53, 2404– 2418, doi:10.1002/2016WR019638.

  7. Colorado River Compact of 1922. Article III(a)

  8. Utah Board of Water Resources. Lake Powell Pipeline Water Needs Assessment: Demand and Supply Update Public Filing to FERC. Page 3.1.3. 11/16/2018