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Policy and Medicine, May 4, 2018

Back to the Drawing Board for the Lake Powell Pipeline
Utah has dug itself into a deep hole, trying to bring water from the Colorado River’s Lake Powell to Washington County. It took 15 years and $40M to dig it.  The hole was revealed by the major factual errors in the studies[1] intended to justify federal approval of the LPP and the threat of legal action from the other six Colorado River Compact states.  Utah has decided to start over, delaying the decision into 2022 or later. Climbing out of this pit will take time and lots more money.
This is a great victory for CSU, our coalition partners, and all of you who joined in the effort to stop the LPP this past year, forwarding the cause of wise stewardship of our precious natural resources. Congratulations to all.
Now is the time to stop throwing good money after bad in the vane hope of bringing an infeasible “second source” of water to Washington County. The money and effort would be better devoted to creating a real, sustainable water management strategy to meet Washington County’s growth. The more time that is wasted on this pipedream, the more difficult and expensive the practical solution becomes.
Rapidly declining mountain snowpack signals impact of climate change on Colorado River flows.
The complexities of the LPP have blinded us all from seeing the stark reality that there will not be enough water in the Colorado River to make the LPP feasible. Proponents of the LPP have never addressed this reality with anything other than “trust us” assurances and faulty analyses based on outdated information.
Utah’s logic for the LPP is based on the invalid assumption that it is entitled to 1.38 million acre-feet yearly(MAFY) [1], [2]  of Colorado River water and, since it uses only about 1 MAFY, there is plenty for the LPP. But it is not an entitlement. It’s based on how much water is really in the river and senior water rights held by others.  Here are the facts:
  1. The 1922 Colorado River Compact was based on an assumption that the river flowed 18-22 MAFY.  The negotiators thought dividing up 16 MAFY was safe, but it’s historical total flows are really more like 15 MAFY[3].  In other words, the Compact assumed that more water was available than actually flows down the river.
  2. Climate change is expected to reduce the river’s flows by 10-30%; 30% appears likely[4].
  3. Mexico and Native American tribes have large senior water rights[5].
  4. The river losses significant water along the way through natural causes[6].
 The arithmetic is simple
  Natural river flow  15.0 MAFY[3]
  Adjustments to the amount available to the Compact  
      30% climate impact - 4.5[4]
      Mexican and Tribal rights - 2.0[5]
      Natural losses - 2.0[6]
  Long-term sustainable use by the Compact states     6.5
  Allocations to each Basin (Upper and Lower)   3.25[7]
  Projected future Utah allocation   0.75[8]
  Estimated current Utah use   1.0[9]
  Estimated future deficit considering only current use   -0.25[10] MAFY
It’s doubtful Utah and the other Compact states would calculate their allocations in this manner.  The Compact is a complex set of agreements and legal precedent accumulated over 100 years, unlikely to be renegotiated from scratch.  Nonetheless, the states must face the reality of this arithmetic one way or another, very soon [11]
The reality for Utah is that its growth must be supported while reducing its current water use by 0.25 MAFY.  How can the LPP be justified when Washington County has an adequate local water supply and wastes so much of it?
Making matters worse, Utah has been far over-allocating its water rights, issuing over 38,000 of them, authorizing use of 2.5 MAFY Colorado River water[12], almost double its fictitious entitlement, and triple its projected future allocation.
All of this means that Utah has allocated far more water than exists and currently uses far more than the future will allow. It’s time for Utah to face the facts about its water, abandon the idea of the LPP, and start responsibly managing for the future.  The longer we wait, the more painful it will be.
Send questions and comments to
CSU and LPP Coalition comments on the LPP Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
[2] MAFY = million acre-feet yearly, about 326,000 gallons/yr. 
[3] All Upper Basin states’ allocations are based on what’s left over from releasing an average of 7.5 MAFY to the Lower Basin.  The Upper Basin has for planning purposes assumed at least 6 MAFY would be left for them. Per the Upper Basin Compact, Utah gets 23% of whatever the real leftover water is, and it has been assuming that’s 23% of the 6 MAFY, or 1.38 MAFY.
[4] Based on undisputed scientific studies based on over 600 years of tree-ring data.  See “Colorado River Flow at Lees Ferry, CO”, Stockton and Jacoby, 1997; TreeFlow, Upper Basin and Lower Basin, showing Upper Basin historical flow = ~14 MAFYand Lower Basin historical flow = ~1 MAFY; Fig 5, Science Be Dammed, Kuhn and Fleck, 2019, pg. 185.
[5] Mexican and Tribal rights are about 5 MAFY, but the amount is not currently being used and will probably be negotiated downward as the reduced flows become recognized, perhaps to as low as 2 MAFY.  See Water Education, Waterkeeper Alliance 12-18-19, AP News 9-15-2020.  Mexico has traditionally been shorted on their allocation. Tribal rights have never been adequately addressed.
[6] Natural losses were never considered when allocations were made to the states.  These losses include evaporation from the river and its reservoirs, evapotranspiration of natural vegetation along the river, leakage from the reservoirs, sustaining the river delta at the Sea of Cortez.  1.5 MAFY is the estimated current evaporation from the 2 big reservoirs, which will increase as warming increases, but decreases as the reservoirs continue to shrink.  The river’s delta is currently not functioning, and it would probably take at least 0.2 MAFY for minimum recovery.  The losses from evaporation outside of the reservoirs, evapotranspiration and leakage are unclear.  Total losses of 2 MAFY seems on the low end of reasonable.
[7] The current Compact requires a 7.5 MAFY average release to the Lower Basin.  This is not sustainable, and will have to be recognized at some point.  Here the assumption is a 50-50 split between the two basins, but that may be overly generous to the Upper Basin and may further reduce Utah’s share. 
[8] This assumes Utah will retain a 23% of the Upper Basin allocation.
[9] Utah’s use of its Colorado River allocation as estimated by the Utah Division of Water Resources in 2018
[10] Calculated merely by subtracting the estimated current use from the project future allocation, not considering the LPP or increased water use for any current water rights
[11] See KSL Article, 6-29-20
[12] See Utah’s Colorado River Water Right Diversion / Depletion Priorities.  Go to the bottom of the list to see cumulative authorized depletions.  The LPP water right is the 23,590th in the list, water right number 41-3479, issued 1958, with senior water rights authorized to use almost 2 MAFY, far more than Utah’s legal allocation.  This could make the LPP infeasible even without addressing the larger river flow issues.

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