ST. GEORGE — Last month the governor appointed the state’s newest Colorado River commissioner, but just what does this position entail and how does it relate to Southern Utah?
“The role of the commissioner is to represent the state of Utah in negotiations with regards to the use of its portion of the Colorado River,” Gene Shawcroft, the state’s newly appointed Colorado River Commissioner said Monday. “(It’s) coordinating with the other six (Colorado Basin) states, as well as the federal government as decisions are made state by state with each state’s individual right to use its allocation from the Colorado River.”
Gov. Spencer Cox announced Shawcroft’s appointment Jan. 14. As the state’s Colorado River Commissioner, Shawcroft will serve on the Upper Colorado River Commission. In addition to Utah, this commission includes fellow commissioners from Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
The commission itself is an interstate water administrative agency that works with the upper basin states to safeguard their respective water rights and allocations while meeting obligations to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
While sitting on the commission, Shawcroft will continue to serve in his current position as the general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District located in Orem.
“Gene has dedicated his career to the study of the Colorado River,” Cox said in a statement. “His knowledge of the river will serve Utah residents well during a critical time in the state’s history – when the basin states are renegotiating the operation and management guidelines of the river. The Colorado River currently provides water to more than 65% of Utah’s population and is a major contributor to the state’s $189 billion economy. The river is one of our most valuable assets and it must be protected.”
The U.S. Department of Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states are poised to renegotiate guidelines for Colorado River usage originally set in 2007. These talks will review what measures have worked, what hasn’t, any measures that may need to be added or dropped, Shawcroft said.
These talks will be taking place alongside a continuing drought contingency plan and worries over impacts to the river’s flow caused by climate change.
“I think Utah has water they are not yet using and the intent would be for us to find the most efficient and productive way to use that water,” Shawcroft said, adding it is important for the other basin states to be able to do the same.
Water, overall, is extremely important to the state, and people in the state are worried about the Colorado River, Shawcroft added. While he will be focused on current projects and uses connected to the river, Shawcroft said he is also mindful of Southern Utah and the pipeline proposed to bring water to it.
“The Lake Powell Pipeline would provide a redundant source of water for an area of the state that is growing rapidly, and I am under the impression … that that’s important for the St. George area to continue to grow,” he said.
Currently, Washington County’s sole source of water is the Virgin River Basin.
Last week, Shawcroft spoke before the Utah House Natural Resources Committee in support of a bill that would create the Colorado River Authority of Utah. The new agency would bring the state’s best minds together to help promote and protect Utah’s interest on the river.
Though Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, argued the creation of the new agency was a front for building of the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Shawcroft said that wasn’t the case, as he and the authority – should it be created – are focused on all of Utah’s uses of the Colorado River and not one that hasn’t been built yet. However, planning for the future, particularly where water is concerned, is vital, he said.
“Water isn’t something we look at three or five years in the future – it’s something we have to look at, sometimes a couple of generations – 50 years out – into the future,” he said.
While Shawcroft’s new position may not enjoy the support of certain groups that oppose the Lake Powell Pipeline and how the state proposes to use its remaining portion of the Colorado River, he does have the support of Washington County’s top water dog.
“Utah’s population and economy depends on the Colorado River. And, the future of our state depends on the Colorado River,” Zachary Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said in a statement.
“We’re entering a critical time when the water rights of all Colorado River basin states are being negotiated,” Renstrom said. “We need a strong advocate for Utah who has the leadership, experience, and determination to represent our state well – Gene Shawcroft is that person. We’re grateful for his willingness to serve in this position and offer him our full support.”
Though Shawcroft’s appointment is lauded by others, the Utah Rivers Council, an environmental advocacy group, has a different opinion on the matter.
“We’re disappointed that Shawcroft has been appointed,” Frankel told St. George News. “He’s not shown himself to be willing to talk to all Utahns, and it’s too bad we have someone who shuns public involvement.”
Utah’s Colorado River Compact allotment is 1.725 million acre-feet of water per year, or 23% of the river. The state is currently using about one million acre-feet annually, according to a statement from the governor’s office.
Shawcroft has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Brigham Young University and is a licensed professional engineer in Utah. He also is active in various professional groups and serves on several governing boards in the water industry, including serving as a trustee for the Colorado River Water Users Association and board member of the National Water Resources Association.
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