SALT LAKE CITY — With future demands expected to only escalate on the already over-stressed Colorado River system, a group of Utah lawmakers took to the sky Monday to get an aerial overview of the river and its tributaries.
In the process, they flew over the record-setting snowpack that still sits in the mountains and got a closer look at the headwaters of the Weber, Bear, Provo and Green rivers before the waterways split in varying directions.
In a briefing at the state Department of Natural Resources prior to the departure of the two flights, agency director Mike Styler outlined the key visuals of the tour, including Flaming Gorge Dam and the Green River as it winds south toward the Colorado and Lake Powell.
Styler said the tour should be a key staple of lawmakers' itinerary every year as a way to help educate policymakers on the critical issues facing the Colorado River — from over allocation to new projects jockeying to come on board or efforts to foster the return of threatened or endangered species like the June sucker that depend on the river.
Among those making the flight was Boyd Clayton, deputy state engineer over water rights, who said about 20,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado in Utah remains unallocated — yet demands "on paper" are for 2 million acre feet.
Styler added that the entire river is over allocated among the seven states that get a share because in 1922 — the year the compact, or water sharing agreement, was adopted — the estimations were just plain wrong.
"Everyone thought there was way more water than there really is," Styler said.
The Utah demands on the river come from a variety of directions — from new projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline to convey water to Washington, Kane and Iron counties or water from the Green River to support the operation of a proposed nuclear power plant in Emery County.
Dennis Strong, director of the state Division of Water Resources, says the state is keeping a wary eye on a Fort Collins, Colo., entrepreneur who has plans to pump water from the Green River in Wyoming — before it reaches Flaming Gorge — and convey it to users in Colorado.
The proposed diversion of 200,000 acre feet is years off and while the state has yet to take an official position, Strong said the proposal is worrisome.
"If he (Aaron Million) were to do it, it would cause problems. Utah is going to have to oppose any diversion out of Flaming Gorge."
Of the eight lawmakers who made the Monday trip, most represented rural areas of the state.
Rep. Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, said he jumped at the opportunity to take the tour because of its ability to provide a big-picture look at the varied Utah projects throughout the state.
"It's a way to see where all these construction projects are along the Wasatch Front and in rural Utah," he said.
The trip was funded in part by the Central Utah Project, a $3 billion federal endeavor authorized in 1956 and created in 1964.
An elaborate collection of dams, tunnels, pipes and reservoirs, the Central Utah Project brings Utah's share of the Colorado River to the Wasatch Front. The flyover included Strawberry Reservoir, which serves as a collection point for water from the Uintah Basin that is then delivered to Utah and Salt Lake County residents.