The fight for water: Here's why the West's oldest battle could hit you at the tap

Published: Saturday, May 12 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

The state has set a water conservation goal to reduce by 25 percent the overall consumption of water by 2050. Utah's population is predicted to double by that year, according to the state Water Resources Division and available water is not enough to keep urban taps flowing.

"Even meeting that goal of conservation, we will still need 200,000 acre-feet of new water from reservoirs, pipelines or wells," said Dennis Strong, director of Utah's Division of Water Resources.

An acre-foot of water is defined as the volume of an acre of water to a depth of one foot — about enough to sustain a family of four for a year.

Sharing water

Utah's share of undeveloped water from the Colorado River will be long gone by 2050, Strong said, noting problems with allocation levels.

"There's going to be real challenges for water managers in the future. There's already more water allocated than what exists, but of course not everybody is using the water all the time. It is going to get to the point where you can't take any more from the Colorado."

California, which has historically enjoyed the excesses of the Colorado River, has been given a deadline to come up with ways to reduce its dependency on the water in the face of a growing Southwest and a river that is increasingly tapped by states that have rights to the water. Sooner or later, Strong said, all those rights will be used up, and what claims haven't been acted on will be as dry as the paper they're written on.

Depending on those flows, most agree, is becoming more difficult given the water that has already been carved out and the fickle nature of the weather. Even those who question climate change concede the extreme variability in the amount of water flowing into the upper and lower basins and the increased demands on the system.

With this past winter's snowpack well below average for the Colorado basin states — dipping down at 50 percent or below of what states normally get — this year is shaping up to be near-record setting for drought for the Colorado River system in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

Additionally, a complex water sharing agreement for the Colorado River mandates that 8.2 million acre-feet of water must flow downstream each year to the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California, even if it means states like Utah have to curtail consumption.

"At the end of the day if the users of the Central Utah Project think they are going to be unaffected, they're delusional," Mulroy said. "You cannot fix this problem unless everyone's at the table. Quite frankly, the choice is very simple because failure is not an option."

Strong said the unpredictability built into the flows of the Colorado River makes it imperative to take care of the water delivery system already in place for Utah's residents.

Lawmakers, he said, will have to decide the importance of the state's future water supplies by committing money to new projects — like more efficient water treatment plants, lining canals to prevent loss of water or building new pipelines to convey water to where people reside. 

If lawmakers decide having enough water is critical, Strong said they'll have to write a big check — $15 billion — to make improvements and plug problems to the existing water delivery system over the next 20 years. Otherwise, the water already there will compromised by inefficiencies.

"We have to decide if water is an essential service like we have already decided with schools and roads," Strong said, pointing to an aging infrastructure in need of repairs.

The push for growth

With so much of the Colorado River water — 80 to 85 percent — being used for agriculture in the region, the lure is to grab and develop that water for use in homes, to keep cities thriving.

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