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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].