Not since the decadelong drought of the 1930s has the lack of winter precipitation generated such interest and concern in Utah and many other water-short Western states - especially California.
With a five-year drought threatening to leave Southern California's giant thirst unsatisfied this summer, California is on the prowl. California's continuing search is making water officials in six neighboring states that share Colorado River rights with California nervous.California wants an extra 400,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water this summer to augment dwindling supplies in the Los Angeles Basin. An extra allocation would allow California to pipe some 1.2 million acre-feet, the full capacity of its existing aqueduct, into Los Angeles.
This isn't the first time California has turned to the Colorado River to take the edge off a drought. In 1976 and 1977, the Colorado River proved Southern California's saving grace during a severe drought.
But there are major differences this year. First, the current drought is heading into its fifth year. Second, almost every state that owns a share of the Colorado River is also suffering from the extended drought. Third, Arizona is almost ready to begin taking water into its massive Central Arizona Project, a move that would substantially reduce the amount of available excess water on which California has grown dependent. And finally, storage in Upper Basin reservoirs is not good. A case in point is Utah's Lake Powell, the Upper Basin's prime storage point, is at a 15-year low.
"I think we're going to find a way for California's needs to be met this year," said Wayne Cook, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission which represents Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico's interests in the river. But just where the water will come from is still up in the air.
The lower basin states, California, Arizona and Nevada, argue the extra water should come from Lake Powell. Upper basin states want the water taken from Lake Mead, the primary lower basin storage reservoir. The 20 million acre-foot Lake Mead is full while Lake Powell is at 15 million acre-feet, some 10 million acre-feet below its capacity. Lake Powell has dropped more than 60 feet over the past few years.
Powell is expected to lose another 3 million acre-feet by the end of summer.
Upper basin states worry that more than just this year's 400,000 acre-foot request could be at stake. The extended drought has once again raised the question of whether the Colorado River Compact, a seven-state agreement that spells out water rights for each, should be reviewed and possibly reworked.
"Droughts tend to raise conjecture that lower Colorado River Basin states, like California, are heading for a showdown with the upper basin states, like Utah, over water allocation," Cook said. "But these fears are overstated and the states are committed to working within the existing compact to meet the needs of all participating states."
Cook's assessment is strengthened by California's failure to win a court battle over Colorado River shares several years ago. The Supreme Court decision essentially endorsed the allocation provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
A recent series of storms that caused major flooding in some areas of California will likely take some of the steam out of the controversy this year. But if drought conditions extend into a sixth year in 1992, the debate could resurface.