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In Utah, a massive water project is gaining ground

The project could divert 86,000 acre-feet from Lake Powell to the retirement community of St. George.

 

St. George is a small, humming, desert city tucked into the southwestern corner of Utah, surrounded by red rocks. Most of its 148,000 people are retirees from the Wasatch front, attracted to its year-round pleasant climate and plentiful golf courses. But with population forecasts predicting nearly half a million St. George residents by 2060, the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which supplies the city’s water, is worried about the future.

Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly clear that they need to find another water source.

Ten years ago, the Utah Division of Water Resources came up with something big: a pipeline from Lake Powell to southwest Utah — the largest proposed diversion anywhere on the Colorado River. Late last month, that grandiose dream took a significant step forward.

On January 27, a state legislative committee voted in favor of a bill that would divert $35 million from a transportation investment fund to water development, aimed at catalyzing the $2 billion project, authorized a decade ago under the 2006 Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act.

The project would pump 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell 140 miles across the desert through a 69-inch buried pipe and then 2,000 feet up and over the mountains into the Sand Hollow Reservoir, 13 miles west of St. George.

Water managers in St. George, Utah, are hoping to build a massive pipeline from Lake Powell to help secure future water supplies for this fast-growing city. St. George residents currently consume water at roughly twice the national average.
Flickr user Ken Lund

For nearly a decade, the pipeline has provoked intense debate, pitting two visions of water management against each other. On one side are those who think the project is not only an outdated solution to water needs, but unnecessary. On the other are those who believe the pipeline is an essential part of addressing southwestern Utah’s future growth.

Proponents like Todd Adams, the deputy director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, say that St. George has already exhausted other means of securing enough water, such as conservation. Already, the city has boosted efficiencies by 26 percent in the past year and implemented measures to improve that number an additional 10 percent. The pipeline is part of a “multi-faceted solution,” he says. “We’ve got to conserve, we’ve got to improve efficiency, and we’ve got to develop new water.”

But critics dispute that assessment, noting that the would-be recipients of pipeline water have some of the cheapest water rates in the nation. Those cheap rates explain why St. George has some of the highest per-person water use in the entire U.S., says Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which opposes the project. St. George residents use 294 gallons of water per person per day, roughly twice what people in Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Denver use, according to state water planning documents.

The pipeline is unnecessary for other reasons as well, says Frankel. Most of Washington County’s water goes to farmers, but if the projected growth occurs — and if the rest of the West is any indicator — much of that farmland surrounding St. George will give way to development. Which means much of the 100,000 acre-feet of water owned by farmers will be transferred to municipal use. The 2011 Washington County Water District newsletter acknowledges this fact, though it says that supply would only serve 280,000 people. Albuquerque, meanwhile uses that same amount to supply almost double that number of people.

In short, says Frankel, St. George has a lot of less expensive ways to boost its water supplies than building a pipeline. Those alternatives are documented in a May 2015 legislative audit, which found that water conservation is not being implemented as aggressively as in many other Western cities.

“It’s like a bunch of kids fighting in the sandbox for toys they don’t need,” says Frankel.

Meanwhile, last October, a group of university economists sent a letter to state lawmakers questioning the viability of the project, arguing that southwest Utah’s communities are too small to be able to pay back any debt payments for their portion of the likely $2 billion price tag.

Plus, there’s the problem of climate change. Studies predict that by 2050, the Colorado River’s flow will decrease anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent. Even currently scheduled water deliveries from the Colorado system will not be sustainable if future climate change reduces runoff by as little as 10 percent. 

Those arguments seem not to have swayed Utah’s water lobby, which sees an untapped reservoir in the state’s 400,000 acre-feet of unused water rights to the Colorado River. As Adams puts it: "If we do put another straw in [the Colorado River] it will bolster the water supply of Washington County."

What’s going on in Utah is happening across the Upper Basin of the Colorado River, says Frankel, referring to the “get it while we can” attitude that’s driving a number of big proposed water projects, from the Gila River Diversion in New Mexico to a plan to boost the water diverted from the Fontenelle Dam in Wyoming, and that are rooted in the West’s dam-driven past.

The arid West has seen lots of fantastical water project proposals over the years. But this one is not like that, says Frankel “This one has legs,” he says.

Already, the Utah Division of Water Resources has spent $28 million studying the proposal and in December, the agency submitted its application to the federal government for approval, a two to three year process. If the pipeline receives the go-ahead, construction could begin as early as 2020.

“You wonder,” says Frankel, “does ‘it’s our water right and we deserve it’ justify a need?”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN.