Utah is headed into a water battle it can’t win

Why is this fiscally conservative state pushing an expensive diversion project?

 

Eric Balken is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute in Salt Lake City.


While states along the Colorado River plan for future shortages, Utah is betting on a big new diversion of water stored behind Glen Canyon Dam. 

It’s called the Lake Powell Pipeline, and last month the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accepted Utah’s licensing application to drain water from the reservoir. The federal agency’s acceptance triggers a new environmental analysis and public comment process for what would become the largest new diversion of the Colorado River. Costing billions of dollars, this would also be one of the state’s most expensive infrastructure projects.

Developers sell the pipeline as vital to the growth of the St. George region in southern Utah. More accurately, it is an effort to put yet another straw in the Colorado before it runs dry.

In the decade since Utah’s Legislature voted to build this pipeline from Lake Powell to southwest Utah, there has been endless debate about its supposed need. The 140-mile pipeline would pump 77 million gallons of water daily to Washington and Kane counties even though they consume water at twice the national average. Still, proponents insist growth will be stifled without it.

The 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline would pump 77 million gallons of water daily to Washington and Kane counties.

In addition, the project’s economics are a nightmare. A 2015 study from the University of Utah, backed by 17 economists, showed it would be financially unfeasible. For the counties to pay back the currently estimated $1.8 billion cost, plus interest, they would have to raise property taxes, charge users impact fees and spike water rates by over 500 percent.

While pushing full-bore to make the pipeline a reality, the state has neglected to provide a repayment plan to the federal government. During the permitting process, FERC repeatedly asked Utah to provide information on project costs, repayment, and impacts to local economies. The state responded that a finance plan would emerge “well in advance of the 90 days prior to construction.”

Given that the current water needs of southwest Utah are nowhere near enough to justify this project, and that every economic analyses shows it to be wildly unrealistic, one might ask why this fiscally conservative state is pushing it at all? The answer is that Utah is staking a claim in the river before it’s too late.

The river has been over-allocated since its water was originally divvied up in the early 20th century, and climate change is only worsening the problem. The river has seen below-average runoff for most of the last two decades, with this year lining up to be one of the worst yet. Combined storage in Lakes Powell and Mead is 48 percent of capacity, and flows are predicted to further plummet by 35 percent over the next century.

California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are nearing agreement on a drought-contingency plan wherein each party is preparing to take less water than their legal allotment — a bold measure to prevent the river’s demise. Yet here is Utah pushing forward with its pipeline so it can legally claim the water will be put to “beneficial use.”

Historically, those who put water to use are the ones who get to keep a water right. Utah, Colorado and Wyoming have not been using their full allotment of the river because their populations are relatively small and far from the river itself. Utah’s diversion may be the most high-stakes attempt at tapping the river before drought forces future cuts.

When asked about the Lake Powell Pipeline last month, Brad Udall, a climate scientist based at Colorado State University, said, “In law, (Utah is) allowed to do that. But it’s like doubling down on a bad bet, and it’s just going to make the pain all the more serious if and should we have to deal with large declines in flow.” 

Utah’s Division of Water Resources is steering the state into a water battle it can’t win. The pipeline’s intakes even aim to suck water as low as dead pool, a level so low the dam cant even release water. At that point, however, all Colorado River users in the Lower Basin would no doubt face drastic delivery cuts.

In the last century, water-diversion schemes like the Lake Powell Pipeline were a sure way for states to develop and stake claim to water rights. But in the modern West, where drought and shortage rule, it amounts to a brazen gamble of public funds that flies in the face of regional conservation efforts.

The public can submit comments on this proposal by Feb. 11, 2018, by visiting FERC’s website and using the project number 12966-044.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -