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'Really Surprising And Really Striking' — 6 Colorado River Basin States Tell Feds To Slow Down Utah Project

Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 2:53pm
Updated: Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 2:55pm
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LAUREN GILGER: Six of the seven Colorado River Basin states, including Arizona, have sent a letter to the U.S. interior secretary urging him not to fast-track a project that Utah officials are requesting. The Lake Powell Pipeline would run from the lake on the Arizona-Utah border to St. George, Utah. Officials there say the water is needed for that fast-growing community. The six states, though, essentially argue Utah is trying to circumvent the collaborative process all seven states have used to manage the Colorado River. And they say the probability of multi-year litigation is high if that's allowed to happen. John Fleck is director of the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program, and he's not a fan of the proposed project. He spoke more about it with our co-host, Mark Brodie.

MARK BRODIE: How would you characterize this letter?

JOHN FLECK: The letter was really surprising to a lot of us and really striking because we have a tradition in the Colorado River Basin that states don't mess in other states' business — that what a state does with the water within its boundaries is that, is each state's business. And the letter, there's a kind of a remarkable breakdown of that bargain. This is six states getting together and saying, "We have a problem with what Utah is doing and the way Utah is doing it with its share of its Colorado River water."

BRODIE: Why is that so surprising? I mean, you referenced the fact that states tend to let other states do what they want. What is it that they're so concerned about with what Utah is doing here?

FLECK: Well, the problem with what Utah is doing, and in a sense, you know, we could have a blame game going on here, but essentially what the states are, are arguing is that Utah, in charging ahead with the Lake Powell Pipeline, without engaging in consultation and collaboration with the other states, is acting in a way that poses a lot of risk to the sort of seven-state collaboration that we've seen more and more over the last 20 years. There are a number of concerns that states have had for a long time about the Lake Powell Pipeline. And rather than working with the states to come up with a shared understanding of how to go forward with this pipeline, Utah has decided to just charge ahead. And the other states are saying, "Whoa, we need to put the brakes on here." They're not saying they're necessarily opposed to the pipeline. What they're saying is, "If we're going to do this pipeline, we need to do it right. It needs to be operated in conjunction with all the other river management decisions that we're making, not Utah going off on its own and just saying, 'To heck with everyone else. This is our water. We're building our pipeline. We don't care what everybody else thinks.'"

BRODIE: Well, so then is the problem that the other states have with the project the project itself? It sounds like it's more with the process by which this project might come to be.

FLECK: Well, it's both, right? So one of the challenges in understanding the Lake Powell Pipeline is understanding that this is not an either or question. Either, yes, there is enough water for the pipeline or no, there is not enough water for the pipeline. To build a pipeline that takes a bunch more water out of the Colorado River Basin has an effect on everybody else who's using the water in the Colorado River Basin right now because it's an oversubscribed river. So maybe there's enough water for Utah, but we have to think about if supplies go short, where is that water coming from? What other users are going to be at risk because Utah is taking more? And as we've been making decisions in the Colorado River Basin — I always say me — we — I mean the seven state — U.S. states and Mexico and the U.S. federal government — we've gotten increasingly good at sort of juggling the tradeoffs and understanding, "OK, if we operate the river this way, these people will benefit, these people might suffer risk." And what the other six states are saying, we need to have that same kind of a conversation about the Lake Powell Pipeline.

BRODIE: One of the things that seemed really striking in this letter was it sounded like the other states are threatening a lot of legal action that could take a very long time to wrap up and to litigate. How big of a concern should that be? How big of a threat is that?

FLECK: We don't want to be in the courts. We do not want to have courts trying to settle water allocation challenges in the Colorado River Basin. We've been down that path before in some sort of historic, monumental litigation back in the '50s and 1960s that set some really bad river management precedents. And so what we've realized is that it's way better to negotiate these things among the states and figure out solutions that everybody can live with than throw the dice and enter a winner-take-all litigation where if one person wins, then somebody else loses —potentially badly. When you're in court — and we know this here in New Mexico where we're in litigation with Texas over water on the Rio Grande — it's really hard to manage a shared river while you're suing your neighbors or while your neighbors are suing you.

BRODIE: Do you get the sense that the states that wrote the letter are concerned about the precedent this might set if, in fact, this process and this project goes through — that the process that Utah is trying to go through, where there isn't the kind of consultation that we've seen before that like other states might say, "Well, if Utah can do it, we can do it too?".

FLECK: You know, one of the things that's interesting about that letter is I have a bit of a different take on it, because there was a lot of behind the scenes discussion in the weeks leading up to the sending of the letter and the fact that six states were on the same page and wrote a very strong letter together suggests to me that six of the seven states understand we can't behave that way. So I think it's actually a good sign.

BRODIE: Is there any kind of indication that the feds or Utah might be changing course on this, that the other six states might get what they want?

FLECK: It's just not clear to me as an outsider. Utah clearly dug in its heels. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion in the weeks leading up to the letter, in which Utah was given a chance to avoid this. Utah chose not to do it. Utah knew this was coming, right? This letter was the result of lengthy discussions among all seven of the states. And the other six states really tried to pressure Utah to come up with a more gradual approach that could allow them to avoid sending the letter. They didn't want to send this letter. So I don't think Utah is going to back down. How interior — the U.S. Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation will behave, they're under a lot of political pressure now from both sides. And we're not talking about red-blue political divide here. There's some pretty Republican states that have signed on to that letter.

BRODIE: All right. That is John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. John, good to talk to you again. Thank you.

FLECK: Thanks so much for having me.

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