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Colorado River users stand together: Diverse group of stakeholders asks for pause on new water projects

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On July 15, a group of activists, business leaders, farmers and elected officials gathered at the Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border to hold a demonstration and urge water managers to impose a moratorium on new dam and diversion projects on the Colorado River.

“I’m a river guide, and have been for 41 years. I know this river system very, very well. And I can tell you that it is not a healthy river system,” said Moab’s John Weisheit, conservation director for the nonprofit Living Rivers, in a speech at the demonstration. The event was organized by Kyle Roerink, director of the nonprofit Great Basin Water Network, and attended by representatives from over a dozen entities.

Weisheit spoke about endangered fish dying off as river levels drop, resulting in higher water temperatures. He talked about diminished flows, and how reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin—Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, and Navajo—are being lowered to maintain a minimum water level in Lake Powell, downstream.

Weisheit has been a water activist for decades, and has been to similar demonstrations at Hoover Dam in the past.

“What we said yesterday was said 40 years ago,” Weisheit said, speaking on July 16. “We were supposed to take care of this 40 years ago, not now.”

He’s referring to management of the Colorado River, which is governed by the complex Colorado River Compact. The agreement, reached in 1922, allocates water among seven states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Basin, and Nevada, Arizona and California in the Lower Basin. Politics, climate, ecology, growth and development all impact the availability of water and how it’s distributed, and with the current 20-year drought in the Southwest compounding the broader impacts of climate change, some of those factors are coming to a head in river management.

For instance, on July 16 the Bureau of Reclamation announced that an additional 181,000 acre-feet of water would be released from the Upper Basin reservoirs Weisheit mentioned, with the expectation that the extra water will raise the level of Lake Powell by three feet.

Downstream, Lake Mead is also in trouble. It’s currently at an elevation of 1,067 feet. According to provisions in agreements negotiated in 2007 and 2019, when the lake reaches 1,075 feet, that triggers cuts in water allocations to Arizona and Nevada—as much as 613,000 acre-feet, or enough water to supply three million people for a year.

Even with these dire conditions, some land and water managers and developers are planning projects that would divert more water from the Colorado River. In Washington County, Utah, the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, which would divert water from Lake Powell to the Sand Hollow Reservoir, has been controversial since its conception in the 1990s.

Opponents argue it’s a wasteful, expensive project—cost estimates are between $1 and $2 billion—that moves water from an over-allocated river to one of the thirstiest water users in the country, as determined by per-capita gallons used per day. Most of Utah’s water use goes towards irrigation, according to the Utah Geological Survey.

Proponents say the pipeline is needed to diversify the area’s water supply, which currently relies on the Virgin River Basin, and to accommodate future growth. St. George newspaper The Spectrum commissioned a survey of Washington County residents to gauge local support for the Lake Powell Pipeline; in a June 3 article in The Spectrum, writer Joan Meiners said almost a quarter of the survey respondents had never heard of the project, though it’s been discussed for decades.

Another proposed project that has Colorado River activists concerned is a large development in southern Nevada, facilitated by the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act. The bill includes an agreement that opens 42,000 acres of public land for residential, commercial, and industrial development, while strengthening protections for another two million acres of public land.

Bill proponents point to increased population projections in Nevada in the coming decades; water activists worry that no water sources have been identified to supply the proposed developments.

With federal stimulus money heading to states and local governments via the American Rescue Plan Act and possibly in a forthcoming infrastructure bill, activists want to hedge against those dollars funneling toward untenable water projects. Demonstrations like the one last week at Hoover Dam bring attention to the issues.

While Weisheit laments that more conservation efforts didn’t happen 40 years ago, he was pleased to attend the Hoover Dam gathering last Thursday, and glad to see a diverse group of participants.

County and city representatives from the area, a representative from the Hopi Tribe, members of the tourism industry, and members of a nearby chamber of commerce joined environmentalists and water policy experts to call for a halt on new diversions from the Colorado River and a change in management practices.

“It was pretty lonely 20 years ago, but now it’s not so lonely,” Weisheit said of such events. “I’m just thrilled it even happened.”