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FOX 13 News 360: Where Utah's water comes from

Posted at 10:11 PM, Jun 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-14 00:20:30-04

If someone tells you they have a firm grasp of quantum mechanics or a firm grasp of the distribution of water in the American Southwest, don't believe either of them.

But in the face of a historic drought, it's important to understand what we can as we think about how we use water in our homes, businesses, farms, ranches, and public spaces.

READ: Water restrictions, long-term solutions contemplated in Utah drought emergency

First thing to understand: if you live in any of the American Southwest's big metropolitan areas, including Utah's Wasatch Front, you rely on the Colorado River.

That's not obvious at first blush.

Wasatch Fronters look to the magnificent mountains rising above their homes, and it's understandable to assume the water comes from there.

Some of it does.

But more of it comes from the Uinta Mountains — far from any big city.

Those of us old enough to have been in Utah when some reservoirs like Strawberry and Jordanelle were completed have a sense of what the Central Utah Project (CUP) is, but even we might not think too much about its relation to the Colorado River.

So here are the basics: the Wasatch Mountains contribute crucial water to the Wasatch Front, but the current population of nearly three million people from North Ogden to Spanish Fork could not be sustained on water from the Wasatch Mountains.

WATCH: Students work to save water during Utah drought

The Central Utah Project created the dams, tunnels and aqueducts that run water from the Uintas to Salt Lake and Utah counties — UNDER the Wasatch Mountains.

Still, it's not so obvious we're talking about Colorado River water because the Colorado enters Utah far south of any portion of the CUP.

Here's the thing: a river isn't one thing. It's a merger.

Like corporations, when two rivers join, they take the bigger river's name. A lot of Sprint cell phone customers are slowly learning they are now T-Mobile customers after a merger.

The Green River is Sprint to the Colorado River's T-Mobile.

The snowmelt from the Uintas joins with snowmelt from the Wind Rivers in Idaho and to make the Green the second biggest waterway in the Southwest. Then the Green meets the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park, a handshake and a stock swap, and the Colorado becomes its fully united corporate titan self.

Of course, like T-Mobile, the Colorado is still a scrappy stream compared to the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers (think AT&T and Verizon) of the world.

OK, let's leave that tortured metaphor and mention that Utah's 2nd biggest concentration of population is in Washington County, quenched by the water of the Virgin River. And that's a Colorado River tributary too!

So two for two so far, Utahns rely on the Colorado.

But it won't be three for three, because Cache Valley has a river that actually runs through it (sorry to the Jordan and Provo, but we all know those are creeks in any non-arid place, right?).

Cache Valley has the Bear River, which carves its own path through its corner of the world, from the north slopes of the Uintas, saying hi to Wyoming and Idaho up north before turning south in a slow slog through northern Utah to the Great Salt Lake. It's the longest river in America that doesn't end up in an ocean, and the Great Salt Lake relies on it for about two thirds of its water.