Colorado River Story

Colorado River is Critical to Utah’s Water Security

The mighty Colorado River serves 40 million people in seven states and two states in Mexico. It also irrigates 5.5 million agricultural acres of land, including 15% of American agriculture and about 90% of the nation’s winter vegetables.

The Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park near Grand Lake, Colorado, and is 1,450-miles long. The river has a huge drainage basin that covers 244,000 square miles and ranks about sixth among the nation’s rivers in flow volume.

In 1922, Herbert Hoover (who later became president) and representatives from seven western states signed the Colorado River Compact, which allocates the amount of water that Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming can legally use. Photo credit U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The Compact divides the states into two basins: the Upper Basin, (CO, NM, UT, WY) and the Lower Basin (AZ, CA, NV). Colorado River water is to be shared equally between the two basins.

Balancing river resources among the states and other interests is an ever-evolving process. In 1948, the Upper Colorado River Commission was created and divided the Upper Basin’s allocation proportionally among the four Upper Basin states. Colorado (51.75%), New Mexico (11.25%), Utah (23%) and Wyoming (14%). The slice of Arizona in the Upper Basin receives 50,000 acre-feet annually. Photo credit Centerstar

The Colorado River system includes the river and the country’s two largest reservoirs: Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These reservoirs act as “savings accounts” where water is banked in wet years to use in dry years. Photo credit Centerstar

Even during drought, the Colorado River has been a reliable source. According to the Compact, the Upper Division States “will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years….” The Upper Division States have consistently satisfied this obligation and exceeded it.

The Southwest continues to be the fastest-growing part of the nation, which is why the basin states work to conserve and stretch existing resources and develop additional water resources to meet the needs of growing communities.

Much of that growth is projected to occur in southwestern Utah, specifically Washington County. (About 500,000 people by 2065; currently about 200,000.) Photo credit Washington County Water Conservancy District

Traditionally, two-thirds of Utah’s growth has been from “natural increase” from the population having children. This percentage is declining with more people moving in. People have discovered Utah is a great place to live and work. Unfortunately, they don’t bring water with them.

Access to water is at the core of prosperity and growth. Utah’s need has never been more pressing because our population is projected to double by 2065.

Utah looks for multi-faceted solutions like conservation, efficiency, optimization, agriculture conversion and water development. This balanced approach will help meet water needs now and into the future.