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Conservation organizations filed an appeal yesterday asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision allowing Utah to divert tens of thousands of additional acre-feet of water per year from the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River.

The groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, argue that the Bureau of Reclamation failed to properly analyze the impacts of the diversion when it approved the Green River Water Rights Exchange Contract in 2019. Specifically, they assert that the Bureau’s environmental review relied on outdated water models that did not account for climate change, drought, or the over-allocation of the Colorado River system.

Utah is seeking to divert the additional water from the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam in the northeastern corner of the state. Science projections show that climate warming will reduce Colorado River flows compared to the last century, adding strain to an already over-allocated system. The groups say ignoring this growing scarcity fails to protect endangered fish species and ecological resources.

The four endangered fish potentially harmed by the diversion and related operational changes to Flaming Gorge Dam include the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub, and bonytail chub. Beyond these protected species, other wildlife reliant on the Green River basin may also be affected.

“Lake Powell has lost 2.4 million acre-feet since 1991. That’s 800,000 acre-feet per decade,” said John Weisheit of Living Rivers. “Just like the humbpack chub that has disappeared from Dinosaur National Park, the native fish of the lower basin are threatened by the river’s declining flow. The Bureau of Reclamation must stop promising water that doesn’t exist and face the reality that every drop counts.”

The Green River winds through fragile riparian wetlands, breathtaking canyons, and several national parks and monuments, including Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, Dinosaur National Monument, Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, and Canyonlands National Park. Altering its natural flows could have far-reaching ecological consequences downstream where it joins the main stem of the Colorado River.

“Pretending climate change isn’t drying up the Colorado River will further harm the people and endangered species that depend on it,” said Taylor McKinnon, Southwest director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Bureau of Reclamation needs to take a hard look at the climate science before making any decisions about the Colorado River’s future. We’re hoping the appeals court reconsiders this critical water case and forces federal officials to face climate reality.”

Conservation groups originally filed a lawsuit challenging the Bureau’s approval in March 2019. After a lower court ruled in favor of the Bureau in 2021, the groups filed the current appeal. They argue the Bureau must conduct a more comprehensive analysis of the diversion’s impacts on river ecology before allowing the project to proceed.

Cover photo courtesy of: EcoFlight

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