(Screen shot, St. George News)

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he is open to alternatives to bring more Colorado River water to Southern Utah, including a suggestion from the Utah Senate president to help California fund desalination facilities in exchange for part of its water share. 

At the same time, he described his Republican primary opponent’s assertion about the level of Lake Powell being intentionally left lower as “bonkers.” 

Cox made the comments in response to questions from St. George News during the Thursday taping of the monthly PBS Utah Monthly Governor’s Press Conference program in Salt Lake City. 

Earlier in the week, a report by Fox 13 News and the Colorado River Collaborative journalism initiative said that Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, has put forward the idea of providing part of the funds for California to construct desalination facilities to remove salt and brine from Pacific Ocean water to convert it to safe drinking water. In exchange, Utah would get a portion of California’s share of the river’s water. 

California receives nearly four times the share of the river’s water that Utah does because of agreements reached in the early 20th century. Negotiations are ongoing with southwestern states for a new agreement concerning each state’s share of Colorado River water, which can potentially be important for the growing Southern Utah community. 

“The lower basin states have been using more water than their share. But you, you also can’t just stop people from having water,” Cox said. “We have to be creative and we do have to work together if we’re going to solve this.”

Cox has been on previous fact-finding trips to Israel and Dubai, where he saw firsthand how those nations have built both water supply and growth through desalination plants. 

While Cox, a Republican, said he has yet to discuss the possibility with his California counterpart Gov. Gavin Newsom, he said he sees it as a promising point of negotiation.

“Desalinization doesn’t help us a lot in Utah. But mass-scale desalination works much better where you have an ocean or a sea of some sort,” Cox said. “We want to help the lower basin states find alternatives and new resources as well because that will help us.”

Two straight wet winters have also done much to improve what had been a severe drought situation in the state, with most reservoirs in the state having gone from 30% capacity to more than 100%. 

The one exception has been Lake Powell – considered a potential additional source of water for Southern Utah – which has remained at around 30-35% capacity as of this week.

During a Tuesday meeting of the Utah Legislative Water Development Commission, of which he’s a member, Cox’s opponent in the June Republican primary for governor Rep. Phil Lyman suggested the federal government is deliberately keeping the water level low to impede more recreational use of the lake. 

“The real issue is Lake Powell at 33% is not because there’s not flow coming down the Colorado River. Ultimately, that lake level is set by the secretary of the interior,” Lyman said during the meeting at the State Capitol. “There’s a level where the recreation level has to be. What we’re seeing is an intentional keeping it below recreation levels.”

On Thursday, Cox dismissed Lyman’s assertion. 

“I have no idea what he’s talking about. People can make up stuff all they want. Nobody’s deliberately keeping the water level low at Lake Powell. That’s just bonker stuff,” Cox said, adding that water is constantly released from Lake Powell to both help supply Lake Mead, which constitutes Las Vegas’ water supply, and to power the Glen Canyon Dam.

“In order to generate power at Lake Powell, we have to keep levels at a certain height or that power goes off all across the West,” Cox said.

An attempt to reach Rep. Lyman or a representative for Lyman was unsuccessful.

As far as advice for Utahns approaching what is expected by climatologists to be a very dry and hot summer, Cox said his message is the same as last year: “Keep conserving, it’s working.”

He said the stemming of the drought tide in Utah hasn’t just been the amount of rain, but the fact that even with all that rain, Utahns didn’t go back to water-wasting ways.

“This last year was the first in the state’s history where we had more water than normal and water consumption went down,” Cox said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”

St. George News Reporter
Chris Reed serves as a reporter for St. George News, where he has been honored with several awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work, including first-place accolades. He started his journalism career as a sports reporter and editor in Southern California where he once compared shoe sizes with Shaquille O'Neal and exchanged mix tapes with members of the Los Angeles Kings. After growing up in the San Fernando Valley learning karate skills from Mr. Miyagi and spending a decade in Las Vegas mostly avoiding the casinos, he came to St. George for love and married his soulmate, a lifetime Southern Utah resident. He is the proud father of two boys, his youngest a champion against both autism and Type 1 diabetes.

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