Summer is wrapping up, which means that many of us are returning home from some epic adventures to catch up with the other parts of our lives. We’re going back to work, reconnecting with friends, and reading up on the news we missed. And boy howdy, has there sure has been some news.
Besides the constant barrage of scandals, tweets, and policy changes coming in from the national political scene, there’s been some very monumental local news as well. As is often the case in these parts, that local news concerns water.
Water: It’s absence in the arid west makes it dominant. We must always be thinking about it, or risk running out of it. Water is so scarce that just a few major rivers — like the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Sacramento — provide virtually the only source of irrigated water to entire metropolitan and agricultural regions. These rivers are parched with drought and overallocated already. But the strain is about to get worse.
The proposals and developments in these recent news stories all have a common thread: we in the west have less water, more people, and fewer examples of good governance. But it doesn’t have to be this way! So, as we all get back into our lives this fall, we hope you will join us in paying attention to how our water is being used, and fighting for a more sustainable future in this beautiful, arid country.
Here’s the news roundup:
The Yampa River Is Running Low
The Yampa is one of the largest, and most free-flowing, rivers in our region. It is a huge contributor to the overall flow of the Colorado River. And, after record heat, little rain, and heavy use, it has been reduced to a trickle.
In fact, there was almost a “call” put on the river this week for the very first time in history. A call is when water users upstream are forced to reduce their water outtake in order to honor the older water rights of those downstream.
Even before the state was considering putting a call on the Yampa, the fishers and river rafters in the region were sounding the alarm about fish that are dying due to high water temperatures and low flow. “This is, I think about the hottest year we’ve seen, worst stream temperatures, and the most amount of fisherman,” Kirk Klancke, President of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, told Colorado Public Radio.
Unfortunately, the Yampa’s conditions are indicative of problems across the region, and as our next story highlights, governments are trying to adapt to the “new normal”. Just not always in the best ways. . .
Wyoming Is Considering a Game-Changing Water Banking Bill
The Colorado River Compact is perhaps the single most important governing document in the Western United States. It allocates water from the Colorado River to seven different states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada). Even though the compact was created nearly a century ago, it largely defines the region’s modern water infrastructure and policy.
When the compact was originally drawn up, Wyoming was allotted 1.04 million acre feet a year of water. Currently, the state doesn’t use nearly all of its allocated water. Some estimate that 400,000 acre feet of water that could be claimed by Wyoming leaves the state each year. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Some people would like to change that.
Under the newly unveiled draft legislation, the state would begin to ‘bank’ this unused water for drought years, or even to sell it back downriver to thirstier areas of the Southwest. The bill would change the definition of what’s considered a “beneficial purpose” for water use, thus allowing the long term storage.
Wyoming state senator Larry Hicks told Wyofile that “Once we establish a water bank and establish a beneficial use to that water, it’s no longer system water. That water now belongs to the State of Wyoming.”
Despite the bill’s sponsors, there are many in Wyoming and surrounding states who are skeptical of the plan.
Rika Fulton, Program Director for the Upper Green River Network, calls the plan “grainy and outdated.”
“Building more dams doesn’t build more water,” Fulton told me over the phone. “Some form of water banking may play some role in the future in the Upper Colorado River Basin, but it needs to be a multi-state solution, rather than a smokescreen to take water with no clear purpose.”
But Wyoming isn’t the only state that’s trying to grab their Colorado River Water before it’s too late. . .
New Developments on the Lake Powell Pipeline
If you’re curious about the controversy behind Utah’s plan to take more water from an already receding Lake Powell and pump it into artificial lakes in the middle of the desert, then check out this amazing piece in Outside Magazine.
In short, St. George, the fastest growing city in the country, is running out of water. Their proposed solution is an enormous pipeline that would suck water from Lake Powell and pump it deep into one of the driest, hottest regions in the world. Advocates suggest that Utah has a right to the water under the Colorado Compact, while many others point out that artificial lakes, golf courses, and green lawns are far from what St. George needs, especially when their average water consumption is far above that of other cities in the region.
While the controversy of the Lake Powell pipeline is bound to continue on the local and regional political stage, some are left wondering how anyone could think this was a good idea in the first place.
I talked with Sarah Stock of Living Rivers, who told me that “Utah just wants to increase their water depletions to the maximum allowed before they can’t anymore.” In other words, Utah developers and politicians can see that, after 19 years of drought and increased demand, restrictions on water use in the Colorado System may be coming down the pike in the near future. If they can max out their water use before then, the thinking goes, then it will be harder for other states to demand a reduction in Utah’s allocated yearly acre feet.
However, there may be even more insidious reasons that some people want this water project to go through. A recent complaint alleges that state representative Mike Noel may have a personal financial stake in the pipeline. Noel, one of the pipeline’s major proponents, owns 700 acres of land in the area that would be directly serviced by the project.
No matter what motivates the pipeline’s sponsors, it is clear that other options for St. George’s development are not be pursued as extensively as they could be. “St. George could still grow,” Sarah Stock told me, “by upping its water efficiently and development local resources, rather than taking water from an already overallocated source.”
Grand Canyon Research Money is Mysteriously Rerouted by Trump Administration
Just down the river from Lake Powell, there’s one part of the Colorado River that actually been stewarded quite well in the last century: the Grand Canyon. But that could all change as soon as next month if the Trump Administration has its way.
It was just announced that twenty-three million dollars will be taken from the Basin Fund, which was established to ensure that the Glen Canyon Dam stays within compliance of the Endangered Species Act. The fund sponsors scientific research into fish and other wildlife and pays for the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. If the funding is lost, then dozens of jobs and the health of one of the most beautiful and rugged ecosystems in the world could be threatened.
The money for the Basin Fund has always come from hydropower revenues garnered from the Glen Canyon Dam. However, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget is going to be redirecting that money to the U.S. Treasury instead of the Bureau of Reclamation beginning on October 1st. Why, exactly, they are doing this is not clear.
In fact, all seven states within the Colorado River Compact have come out in opposition to the move. Even conservative politicians in states like Utah and Arizona, who usually go along with the Trump administration’s line, have stated their opposition.
Rika Fulton of the Upper Green River Network questions the legality of the move altogether. “There are laws and stipulations that allocate this money to go to the Basin Fund,” she said. “Theoretically 500 people could lose their jobs because of this move.”
To learn more about the reactions of scientists and environmentalists who work on the Grand Canyon in the wake of this unprecedented move, check out this report from Flagstaff’s KNAU.
Another Speculation Boom on the Tavaputs Plateau
Every few years it makes a blip in the news: some investor thinks that Utah is the future oil production capital of the country, if not the world. Many of us who keep out eyes on these extraction sites in eastern Utah (and maybe sometimes protest them as well. . .) find that, like the oil industry itself, the speculation has a boom and bust cycle.
Well, here is another boom.
A recent New York Times article looks at a Canadian Company called Petroteq Energy, which claims to have developed a ‘clean’ way to separate oil from rock that will make the billions of barrels worth of oil in the region extracable. They are, however, not the first ones to make this claim.
U.S. Oil Sands was touting a similar ‘disruptive’ technology just a few years ago, before they entered into receivership (the Canadian equivalent of bankruptcy). There is, in fact, a veritable graveyard of tar sands projects on the Tavaputs Plateau.
Whether Petroteq Energy can pull through where others failed, only time will tell. They certainly have the ambition. The New York Times piece recounts how, like a stereotypical Hollywood villain, the company’s chief executive David Sealock picked up a canister of oil, sniffed it, and then said “That’s the smell of money.”
When I talked with Sarah Stock of Living Rivers about the project, she sounded a bit less conniving. “I went out there, actually,” she told me. “It’s just south of Vernal, and what’s amazing about it is that you actually see the Green River from the mine site.”
While the company claims that they use “no water” in their production, Stock said that she could “see that they’re leaving piles of damp sand that are mixed with chemicals within the watershed.”
Even if the extraction techniques are safe for the water, there are larger concerns about fossil fuel development in general. Tar sands projects in Canada have been labeled “carbon bombs” because they unlock the potential to burn significantly more fossil fuels, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and therefore exacerbating climate change.
Well, that’s it for your Western Water News Roundup this time. Remember, while there’s plenty to be discouraged about, there are many ways to fight the destructive developments and build alternatives. Make sure to check out our Earth Day blog which focuses on ways that you can get involved with local environmental justice groups!
Easton Smith is a Local Wasatch Front resident and writer. He spends his time community organizing, rock-climbing, and playin’ some mean banjo. For more writing from Easton, check out his organizing collective’s blog “Brine Waves” here or stay tuned for future loggings in River Currents.