The Lake Powell Pipeline continues to polarize

lake powell
Lake Powell. | stock.xchng photo

ST. GEORGE – From the streets of St. George to the halls of the state government in Salt Lake City, the Lake Powell Pipeline continues to polarize and incite debate.

On Nov. 14, members of the Utah Legislature’s water task force recommended that the state approve a 15 percent earmark on state sales tax to help cover the cost of the pipeline. The current cost of the project stands at $1.1 billion.

Three days later, Governor Gary Herbert commented on KUED that he was skeptical of the plan. The idea of having the body of the state pay for a regional project did not appeal to him. Still, Herbert said he would refrain from any official position on the matter until he became better acquainted with the details.

Within the last few days, three newly elected members of the Cedar City Council are calling for the Iron County Water Conservancy District to withdraw support of the pipeline.

Aside from a massive price tag and trying to figure out how it will be financed, just what is it about the Lake Powell Pipeline that can trigger debates between project proponents and opponents?

Depending upon who is asked, there is plenty to argue. Yet, before an argument can be made, the proposed need for the pipeline project must be addressed.

Is there a need?

According to the Washington County Water Conservancy District, there is a pressing and future need for the pipeline. Washington County is estimated to run out of water sometime after 2020.

”You don’t want to run out of water,” said Barbara Hjelle, an associate general manager/counsel for the WCWCD.

Hjelle said the purpose of the pipeline was to supplement the water resources that already existed in the region.

The future development of the county, as well as the continued maintenance of the lifestyle currently enjoyed by county residents, would seem to depend on the pipeline’s creation.

The pipeline itself will run 139 miles from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir, with branches running to Kane and Iron counties. It is designed to carry 100,000 acre-feet of water to the state’s southwestern corner. An acre-foot is the estimated amount of water an average household uses annually.

Along the pipeline’s route, Hjelle added there were four potential sites for hydro-electric power stations.

As for who pays the bill for the pipeline, Hjelle said it was a state project, so therefore the state would be paying for a large part of the costs. The current projection for Washington County’s portion is $800,000.

Hjelle explained that the cost would be covered through impact fees on future construction. Such impact fees could range as high as $20,000. This rate would not take effect immediately, Hjelle said, and added that future rates of inflation and construction costs were factored into the overall amount.

As per federal regulations, alternatives for the pipeline were proposed and considered. None of which looked particularly feasible to the WCWCD.

Among the alternatives were treating either the Virgin River or sewer plant water with reserve osmosis. The former is said to be too costly and potentially damaging to the environment of the river. The latter would not be approved by regulatory agencies and social tolerance for the idea would be lacking.

Another alternative involved restricting daily water usage by 89 percent. Some of the possible side effects of the restriction included the removal of trees, plants, grass and bushes; a prohibition on gardens, and a decrease in air quality due to an increase in exposed soil.

“Look at the data,” Hjelle said. “You’ll find there isn’t a more effective alternative [than the pipeline].”

Not everyone is convinced

Christi Nuffer is the administrator of Citizens for Dixie’s Future, a local advocacy group that is not convinced of the need or benefit of the pipeline.

“We have more than enough water for our needs,” Nuffer said.

So what is Washington County’s real problem? Nuffer pointed a finger at the WCWCD for not relying on valid data, plus encouraging water-waste instead of conservation through its policies

“They’re playing a numbers game,” Nuffer said.

Part of the pro-pipeline argument is that Washington County will continue to grow and develop, thus adding to the need for more water. Where Nuffer faults this claim is in the growth projections used by the state and WCWCD.

“They’re looking at a 5 to 6 percent growth rate over the next 10 years,” Nuffer said.

The percentage rate Nuffer quotes came from 2008 growth projections made by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. These projections put the county’s population at 170,000 in 2011. The current population stands at 138,000.

Nuffer said, according to numbers obtained from the same Office of Planning and Budget in 2010 by Scott Staheli, the director of the Washington County Economic Development Council, the annual growth for the county was actually one-and-a-half percent.

Hjelle acknowledged that population growth had slowed due to the economic impact, but said the WCWCD’s “hands were tied.”

Since the pipeline is a state project, the WCWCD has to go by the state numbers. Projections have since been revised for an average rate of two percent annual growth, Hjelle said.

Another problem Nuffer noted was how the WCWCD kept water costs in the county cheap. Rather than paying the actual price for what water, the WCWCD keeps the price artificially low by subsidizing the cost through property taxes, she added.

“There’s no economic incentive for people to conserve,” Nuffer said.

According to CDF and the Utah Rivers Council, Washington County is the most wasteful entity in the nation when it comes to water. The county used between 311 and 350 gallons of water per-capita-day compared to the 241 used by Las Vegas and 171 used by Denver.

Concerning the cost of the pipeline itself, Nuffer said the actual price tag was closer to $2 billion. If it is built, she does not believe it will serve as an economic boon to the community.

“The pipeline will increase the local debt and increase taxes,” Nuffer said.

If anything, Nuffer added, the people who will benefit the most from the pipeline project will be landowners and developers in the long run, rather than average citizens.

Water rights and the Colorado River – an issue?

There is an aspect to the pipeline that, if the WCWCD’s position is correct, may be no real issue at all.  On the other hand, the issue in question may be both a reason for the pipeline as much as a reason against it.

It is the issue of state water rights concerning the allocation of the Colorado River.

Richard Kohler, principal architect of Kohler Architecture and a self-described environmentalist, supports the pipeline.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Kohler said. “It benefits the state.  It preserves [the state’s] rights to the Colorado River.”

Kohler noted the ever-present specter of California when it came to claiming water from the Colorado River. In the past, when states did not use all of their allotted water, the access could be taken in by California.

Hjelle also remarked on the subject.

“They got in the habit of using more than they were supposed to,” she said.

Hjelle mentioned the Colorado River Compact of 1922, an agreement made between the seven states the Colorado flows through.  The Compact split the region into two halves: the Upper Basin (Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming), and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California and New Mexico). The Compact then divided 15 million acre-feet of water between the Upper and Lower Basins, assigning 7.5 million acre-feet to each.

Utah’s allotment is 1.7 million acre-feet. California’s allotment is 4.4 million acre-feet.

Currently, there is a 400,000 acre-foot surplus in Utah.  The pipeline would utilize 100,000 acre feet.

And if California raised an objection to the surplus water being developed and used, Hjelle said it was too bad.

“California has no legal right to Utah’s water,” Hjelle said.

However, David Tufte, an economics professor with Southern Utah University, said that wasn’t the case. CDF sponsored a study done by Tufte concerning the socioeconomic impact of the pipeline in 2008.

“California has the right to the water,” Tufte said.

Tufte stated California had primacy over Utah, particularly over surplus waters. Putting that surplus water to use meant it couldn’t be harvested by another state. Still, he added, California could shut down the pipeline over the issue of water allocation.

While California has yet to make any official acknowledgement concerning the pipeline project, a way the state is able to gain access to extra water is through the 2001 Colorado River Interim Service Guidelines.

According to a study on Utah’s perspective on the Colorado River by Larry Anderson, a former director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, the 2001 Interim Guidelines allow the Secretary of the Interior to provide extra water to the Lower Basin – California in particular –for municipal and industrial needs. The interim period of the guidelines was set between 2001 and 2016.

Anderson’s study, which was produced in 2002 and is cited by the WCWCD, noted 20 years prior to 2001, California used approximately 5.2 million acre-feet annually – 800,000 more than its standard allotment. The 2001-2016 interim period was provided so California could begin to enact conservation efforts in order to bring the state’s consumption down to 4.4 million acre-feet.

Still, whatever may be said by California, or any other state, may be a moot point. In this case California may be little more than an unjustly accused boogeyman.

John Swallow, Utah’s chief deputy attorney, said he had no knowledge of any objections raised by California or any other state corning the pipeline. Yet he did remark on the state’s position on its water rights.

“Part of Utah’s right to the Colorado water involves the ability to bring water to the St. George area,” Swallow said. “Utah has the right to develop its water resources and develop its allocatable share…We certainly feel we have the right to develop our water resources and that means everything we are entitled to under the compact.”

There are additional issues surrounding the pipeline concerning its overall feasibility and socioeconomic impact on the region. To learn more, visit the following sites:

Washington County Water Conservancy District: Lake Powell Pipeline Information

Citizens for Dixie’s Future: Lake Powell Pipeline Facts

[email protected]

Copyright 2011 St. George News. This material may not be published or rewritten without written consent.

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  • Brett November 23, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Good article. Well balanced and backed up with data. Good refresher on the issue. Great journalism!

  • Greta Hyland November 23, 2011 at 11:28 am

    If the alternatives are not feasible are they viable alternatives? Under NEPA they are supposed to be feasible/viable in order to be considered in the first place, otherwise the only real course of action is the preferred alternative.

  • Yokel November 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    In a shortage, what do you think will get cut off first? The golf courses, splash pads, alfalfa fields, lush lawns and swimming pools of St. George or the Central Valley’s food production in California?

  • Kanabal November 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    California, and the rest of the lower-basin states does have the right to fill it’s allotment before Utah or any of the upper basin states do, per the Colorado River Compact. If we had a series of dry years and less water in the system, California would still get all of it’s water first. It looks like conservation would be a more reasonable approach.

    And it’s Iron county, not Cedar County.

  • urbanboy November 25, 2011 at 6:36 am

    I have NO sympathy or support whatsoever for this pipeline. Washington County seriously wastes that much water??!! (above) It’s bad all around, regardless, but when you consider we are desert, that’s absolutely assinine!! Yet Even more pathetic, we use that much more than 2 much larger METROPOLITAN CITIES OF VEGAS AND DENVER!!!!!! Hell no, do we deserve assistance from any kind until we are RESTRICTED to conserve atleast as much as all other desert areas are to conserve, PERIOD!! What an outrageous embarassment to this community. Good for the 3 newly elected Cedar City council memebers for urging the Iron County WCD to not support this joke project!!

  • Big Bob November 25, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Waste waste waste! I have to say, no to the pipe until we all learn to respect the desert climate we chose to live in. If you want lush, evergreen, thirsty yards, move to the Northwest. But this is the Mojave Desert, the same desert that Las Vegas resides in. We should ALL be accountable for strict water conservation, which really should just be first nature. It makes my blood boil to see sprinklers on twice a day, everyday. d one huge issue I could never understand is why businesses/ churches have to have lawns at all, it’s bad enough at the high percentage of lawns in residential areas! I ask citizens, next time any of you venture down to our other desert neighbors of Mesquite or Vegas, please observe the bulk of landscaping from business fronts to residential yards, you’ll see much more desert-friendly landscaping and less lawn. Being in the same climate, why, of why should St. George be any different???

  • MaRtHaH!! November 26, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    AMEN! Why have a pipeline, so we can continue to waste and waste more than we already do?! I sooo agree, why should our area be any different in the way of conservation than Phoenix, LV or Mesquite?! Start by not building any more golf courses and ripping up some that are underused due to high prices and the recession. This is a cowardly outrage!!!

  • Firefly November 28, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Rest assured that local taxes will increase to pay for this pipe (dream) line. Conservations is key and sadly the least supported. The water district official states that it is a “state” project and therefore not costing Washington County residents any more than the $800,000. as the County’s portion. Don’t we pay state taxes also? Why is it these officials think that residents are clueless and/or ignorant, and we do not understand anything? If this pipeline is approved and built, you can start to save money for the taxes that will be coming our way.

  • Brian Homerguy October 9, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    If we just quit wasting water on our lawns we should have plenty of water for years to come.

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