ST. GEORGE – The second of two open house meetings held in Southern Utah concerning the progress of the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project Thursday drew a large crowd with questions. Local and state water officials were on hand, yet some attendees didn’t get the answers they were looking for.
Last month a preliminary licensing proposal for the Lake Powell Pipeline was submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The open house meetings, the first held in Kanab Tuesday and the second in St. George Wednesday, are being held during the 90-day public comment and review period to provide the public a chance to give input on whether or not the pipeline should be pursued and if an alternative should be considered.
“When I go into an open house like this,” Utah Division of Water Resources spokesman Joshua Palmer said Thursday, “I look around at 50 – looks like at least 50 – different discussions going on about something that matters to people in the region. And that is always a positive thing, discourse is always a positive thing.”
A number of attendees demanded to know what the cost of the pipeline would be. While initial estimates have placed the potential costs around $1 billion, others have claimed the cost would be twice as much and ultimately more as costs of management and maintenance are factored in.
However, as the project is still in the early phases of a pending environmental impact study, water officials said, some of the specifics, like more exact costs associated with building the 140-mile pipeline, may not be known until the studies involved are completed.
“It’s important to know that when you go through the environmental planning process, it’s a process,” said Ron Thompson, Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager. “… We’re in that early stage and we’ll finally get through it, and we’ll have a better idea of what the project is going to look like and what the federal agencies will allow us to do. We won’t know that until we go through (the process) and this is just part of that long process.”
A recent study released November 2015 and endorsed by 20 economists from three major Utah universities placed the costs of the pipeline between $1.4 billion and $2 billion. The study also claims the project will create an $800 debt on every citizen of Washington County every year for the next 50 years.
“We believe the pipeline will lead to billions of dollars in debt (for Washington County taxpayers),” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. Citing the study, he also said the cost of repaying the debt incurred by the project will cause “a huge increase in water rates, impact fees and property taxes.”
The projected increase could be as high as 138 percent for impact fees and 678 percent for water rates, according to the study.
County water officials dispute the study’s claims.
“I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to pay for it,” said Nickie Stocks, who moved to St. George 24 years ago and is opposed to the pipeline.
The pipeline is touted by water officials to be able to support an additional 300,000 residents in the county by bringing over 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell.
“We’re not going to have the money,” Stocks said. “We’re not going to be able to sustain 500,000 people in the desert.”
The Utah Rivers Council submitted a Government Records Access Management Act request to the Washington County Water Conservancy District in December 2015 asking for a schedule of payments related to the pipeline’s debt service. The request was subsequently denied by the WCWCD, stating it currently does not maintain such records.
Frankel said he gave the water district an appeal to the denial the night of the open house meeting. He said he believes such documents would show the people of Washington County, and their elected officials, that the water district isn’t telling the whole truth about the potentially negative impacts of the pipeline’s cost.
While the pipeline may be a large-scale water project unique to the region, it is not unique to the West.
“This is how we have water in the western U.S.,” said Skip Holland, a senior vice president of MWH Global, the state’s engineering consultant on the project. “Wherever it doesn’t rain, we have these projects …. They are proven projects. They are not experiments.”
State financing of the pipeline
The Utah Legislature originally made way for the pipeline in 2006 by passing the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, which provided funding terms to water organizations participating in the project.
If the project is approved, the state will loan funds to the water organizations for the program costs, which would cover design, engineering, construction, the water itself and the like.
Before breaking ground on the project, the water organizations must commit to taking 70 percent of the water allocation, Palmer said Thursday. They will then repay the state according to a schedule of water-block purchases, on terms to be negotiated, including interest. Over time, through the water-block purchases, the state will fully recoup funds it has advanced.
According to the act, the first 70 percent would be repaid as follows:
- During the first 10 years from completion of the pipeline, the districts pay for each block they take over a 50-year period from the date they buy that block
- After 10 years, the districts pay for each block they take within 50 years of the pipeline completion date – that is, in a shorter amount of time than various blocks taken over the first 10 years
“So there’s an incentive for them to take most of the first 70 percent within the first 10 years,” Palmer said, “because the repayment term runs 50 years from the date of purchase.”
The last 30 percent would be repaid as follows:
- The districts must pay for each block they take over a 50-year period from the date they purchase that block
Gov. Gary Herbert’s proposed 2017 budget, released Dec. 9, 2015, recommends several conditions be met before the state would be willing to consider allowing the project to go forward. The conditions include better tracking of current water use, stronger conservation measures, increased transparency and local voter engagement.
The governor’s budget may signal a shift in the willingness of state officials to fund the Lake Powell Pipeline and other large water projects, a function which in the past was filled by the federal government.
If plans are allowed to move forward as projected, construction could begin in 2020 and be finished by 2025.
Economic benefits, growth
In addition to providing more water to Kane and Washington counties, the potential economic benefit to the area is anticipated to be $7.8 trillion in gross metropolitan product, $7.3 trillion in personal income and $3 trillion in wages and salaries ultimately generated by an increased population and business-base created by the additional water supply, according to information displayed at the meeting.
St. George Mayor Jon Pike has long supported the idea of the pipeline as a means to help secure the city’s continued growth. However, he also believes additional water conservation measures need to be applied as a part of that.
“I don’t believe (water conservation) is the complete answer,” Pike said. “We’re going to need new sources (of water), and this is the next source. The low-hanging fruit is gone.”
Though there was a healthy presence of doubt about the pipeline from some attendees, state officials welcomed the questions and thanked participants for giving them detailed questions and suggestions.
“We’re really happy with the turnout,” said Joshua Palmer, spokesman for the Utah Division of Water Resources. “There’s a lot of feedback.”
The more detailed the input from the public, the better, Palmer said, as it helps play into determining if the pipeline is viable or if an alternative is a better option.
The 90-day comment period on the preliminary licensing proposal is open until Feb. 29 for the majority of the report.
- Search Lake Powell Pipeline documents using docket number P-12966 here
- Go to the comment section here and fill out the form, including your email; you will be emailed a link to submit your comment
- Open the link in the FERC email and use the Lake Powell Pipeline docket number to comment: P-12966
- Write and submit questions, comments and feedback
- Comments from organizations, comments over 6,000 characters and comments including photos or graphics can be submitted following these instructions:
- Create an account at FERC Online
- Follow the instructions for FERC’s eFiling System
A few reports have been added to the FERC site as supplements to the report due to technical difficulties uploading, Palmer said. Those reports include requests for extensions on the comment periods which may be allowed for those select items. See the FERC docket P-12966 here for particulars.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report, particularly the state financing aspects; reporter Julie Applegate also contributed to this report.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.