With Southern California scrambling for the second time in 15 years to head off massive water shortages, Utah and other states in the Upper Colorado River basin are concerned.
That concern has Utah legislators considering a proposal to effectively limit water exports from Utah to other states.While the legislation affects all Utah water resources, the primary focus is on the Colorado River drainage. Well-financed California groups have sought for years to acquire upper basin water rights that could be transferred to diversion points in the lower basin.
The Colorado River proved the savior for drought-plagued Southern California in 1976 and 1977 and officials there hope to repeat the scenario.
Colorado River water officials say it now appears Southern California will be able to divert up to 1.2 million acre-feet of water from the river without forcing extra releases from Lake Mead or Lake Powell.
"It looks like the Central Arizona Project's anticipated draws were over-optimistic and there should be enough water available to Southern California without additional releases," said Wayne Cook, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. "The CAP facilities are not maturing as rapidly as had been expected."
Cook said additional releases would have had minimal impact on Utah this year.
"The extra water would have come from Lake Mead this year since it has more water in storage at the present time," Cook said. "If extra releases continued, there would have been some impact on Lake Powell over time because of rules requiring storage in the lakes to be equalized."
The Los Angeles area has rights to 550,000 acre feet of Colorado River water. The district has traditionally diverted an additional 650,000 acre-feet of unused water through its aqueduct. Initial projections for 1991 indicated only 800,000 acre-feet would be available, prompting the request for the extra releases.
Cook said upper basin states such as Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming have resisted the pressure to sell thus far and he expects that resistance to continue.
Cook said droughts tend to raise conjecture that lower basin states are heading for a showdown with the upper basin states over the allocation issue. Cook feels that these fears are overstated and that the states are committed to working within the existing compact to meet the needs of all participating states.
"The purpose of the 1922 Colorado River Compact was to reserve water for the upper states because it was expected that they would develop more slowly than the California area," Cook said. "The challenge right now is to use the excess water prudently during the interim to meet needs in other areas while protecting those water rights for the future."
A 1964 Supreme Court decision involving an Arizona suit against California reduced California's claim to Colorado River water from 5.2 million acre feet annually to just 4.1 million.
"California is in a position of having to wean itself from Colorado River water and that is a difficult process, especially during droughts," Cook said. "Their only other option is to convert agriculture water from the Colorado to culinary use through conservation measures."
Nearly half of the culinary water for Southern California comes from the north end of the state through the California State Water Project, Cook said. Because the northern part of the state is suffering more intensely from the current drought, that supply has been substantially reduced.
Cook said current plans for this summer are for normal water releases. He said both the downriver water supply and the generation of hydropower should not be adversely affected this summer.