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Study: Colorado River Vital To Utah Economy

50 percent of Utah's economic output is tied to the Colorado River.

According to an Arizona State University study, the economies of six Western states, including Utah, could take a serious blow if water from the Colorado River were to become unavailable. The study shows that $1.4 trillion in regional economic activity is tied to the river, with 16 million jobs to go with it.

Close to one million of those jobs are found in Utah. In fact, half of the state’s total economic output is dependent on the river. Tim James, an economics research professor at ASU, said that the study concerns the value of the Colorado River as it is currently used and doesn’t take into account human factors.

“The study is really about the value of the river as it’s currently employed and how much you would lose if you scale up and downwards based on that,” James said. “We’re not allowing for the incredible inventiveness of humans in thinking of ways of doing things which don’t involve so much water as they previously used.”

With predictions of another drought this year, lawmakers and business owners are trying to figure out ways to conserve Utah’s water. James said that trying to measure human activity’s impact on the Colorado River’s water supply is unlikely to yield accurate results.

“Let’s say that we had suddenly a rule that you could only use so much water every time you washed your clothes in the washing machine. That would probably cause us to change our activities and might significantly reduce the water consumption of washing machines,” he said. “I can’t sit at my desk and imagine how industry would change as a result of there being a change in the amount of supply because there is no good model of predicting people’s behavior like that.”

Within the parameters of the study, even a 10 percent drop in water availability from the river could result in over $100 billion in lost gross regional product across the western United States.