ST. GEORGE — The official license application for the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline was submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Monday, and groups opposed to the pipeline are weighing in.
The proposed pipeline would stretch nearly 140 miles and carry up to 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Washington and Kane counties, water which proponents say is needed to support future population growth in Southern Utah. Opponents say the pipeline is not needed and would be prohibitively expensive.
The next step in the process is a review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Division of Water Resources spokesperson Joshua Palmer said. The agency could then reject the pipeline proposal, ask for more information or move forward with an environmental impact statement.
“From our standpoint, we feel like (the NEPA process) is the system that is set up to vet these things,” Palmer said, “and we just feel like we need to trust the process and trust that whatever the outcome of that process is, that that will be the best outcome.”
The proposal’s four alternatives include several different routes for the proposed pipeline which could significantly affect the size, scope and cost of the potential project, a Division of Water Resources press statement said. Other alternatives for providing water to Washington and Kane counties without using water from Lake Powell are also considered in the proposal.
Conserve Southwest Utah, a local conservation group formerly known as Citizens for Dixie’s Future, opposes the pipeline and said the water district is using unrealistic population forecasts, outdated water use data and unreasonably low estimates of the cost to justify the need for the pipeline.
The group also believes the Colorado River is already overallocated and that depending on it for future water is not sustainable.
“Investing billions of dollars into a project that may not produce water in the future is a financial risk not worth taking,” information from Conserve Southwest Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline Web page said.
“Using water more efficiently and taking water conservation measures are the least expensive option.”
State officials may also be having second thoughts about large projects like the Lake Powell pipeline. In December 2015, the 2017 fiscal year budget proposal unveiled by Gov. Gary Herbert recommended several conditions should be met before the state would be willing to consider funding billion-dollar projects like the pipeline.
Based on U.S. Geological Survey data, Utah has the highest per capita municipal and industrial water use in the nation, Herbert said, and the budget proposal recommends better tracking of water use, stronger conservation measures, independent validation of project costs and increased transparency and local voter engagement.
The pipeline application comes just days after the federal government announced it is considering cuts to Lower Colorado River water users in Arizona, Nevada and California, Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel said in a press statement. The cuts could reduce water deliveries by hundreds of thousands of acre-feet for these southwestern states.
“It’s madness that America’s most wasteful water user is proposing to divert more Colorado River (water) while water cuts are being considered for millions of users downstream who’ve been conserving water for decades,” Frankel said.
The Lake Powell Pipeline would pump 28 billion gallons of Colorado River water 2,000 feet uphill across 140 miles of desert to water the lawns of St. George, Frankel said.
“Because these residents use more than twice the national average of water per person and are a relatively small community,” Frankel said, “the pipeline will deliver as much water as 700,000 average Americans use in a year to just 160,000 Utah residents.”
However, the Washington County Water Conservancy District disputes those figures.
“Washington County’s residential water use is one of the lowest in the state of Utah, despite its location in the most arid and hot part of the state,” water district General Manager Ron Thompson said in an emailed response to a request for comment.
Landscapes in Southern Utah are more efficient than in other parts of the state, and many of the newer neighborhoods and master-planned community associations have turf-free landscapes, Thompson said.
Because every municipality is different, Thompson said, it’s hard to say that one city is more water efficient than another by simply looking at water-use numbers.
“As one example, many like to compare our water use to Las Vegas’ given our close proximity and fairly similar climates,” Thompson said. “However, Las Vegas has 4,298 people per square mile compared to St. George’s 1,035. As municipalities become more population dense, they naturally become more water efficient.”
In addition, Las Vegas measures water use differently than Washington County, which skews the comparison.
Lake Powell Pipeline costs
Cost estimates for the pipeline vary. Last fall, a group of 21 Ph.D. economists from the three major universities in Utah estimated the cost at $1.4 billion-$1.8 billion. The study concluded that the project would require at least 500 percent increases in water rates and 120 percent increases in impact fees to repay the debt and would burden every man, woman and child in Washington County with as much as $781 of debt every year for the next 50 years.
“The water district receiving this water nets just about $10 million per year but they magically claim they can make annual debt payments of $50 (million) to $100 million per year,” Frankel said. “Gigantic water rate increases are coming to every Washington County resident if this pipeline is constructed.”
Frankel called the Lake Powell Pipeline “a con game led by hucksters seeking $2 billion of taxpayer money” and said the Utah taxpayer will be the victim.
The Washington County Water District refutes these claims, saying the economists’ study is flawed and based on faulty assumptions, including inaccurate or outdated population projections, water supply availability and use, agricultural water transfers and more.
The study ignored the provisions of the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act of 2006, Thompson said, which calls for the repayment of project costs once developed water is delivered to the districts over a long period of time. The interest rate has yet to be determined but would be in line with other public contracts.
The assertion that current county residents would bear the full cost of the pipeline that will not begin delivering water for about 12 years is a “scenario without any basis in fact or reality,” Thompson said.
The study would have Washington County residents paying interest on the project before the funds have been obtained and spent, Thompson said. This artificially inflates costs, and those figures were used later in the study to make the conclusion that unsupportable cost increases would need to be borne by local water users.
The same fallacy is applied to the study’s elasticity calculations, rate increases, impact fee requirements and other factors, Thompson said.
Frankel said pipeline proponents have no viable plan to finance the $1.4 billion to $3.2 billion pipeline, even after eight years of study.
“Utah law requires that recipients repay the costs of the project with interest upon completion of the project,” Frankel said. “Since the pipeline water would be delivered to just 160,000 residents in Washington County, Utah, this provision means that recipients of the water will be forced to pay gigantic increases in water to finance the costly project.”
However, Thompson said the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act specifies that water users will have up to 90 years to completely pay off the pipeline.
The district will pay for the water in blocks as it is needed and used, district spokesperson Karry Rathje said in an earlier interview. It is a series of smaller repayments with interest, rather than a single loan, and most blocks will have a 50-year repayment.
Thompson also said it is premature for the district to have a final financial model for repayment before a decision is reached that would allow the project to be built and specify how the project will look and operate.
Once a record of decision is received, Thompson said, the district will work with the state and consultants to create a final design, cost estimate, financing terms and ultimately a repayment plan. The information will be shared with the public before the district commits to build the pipeline.
Lake Powell Pipeline alternatives
Critics of the pipeline also point to the inflation of water-use data by the Division of Water Resources as one of many reasons why the pipeline isn’t necessary. Frankel said many inexpensive alternatives are being ignored. These alternatives to the pipeline are documented in a May 2015 legislative audit, Frankel said, which found that water conservation is not being implemented as aggressively as many other western cities — including Las Vegas – and that the area has an abundance of unused agricultural water that could be converted to municipal water supply.
However, Thompson said the legislative audit did not consider alternatives to the pipeline or specifically compare Washington County’s conservation progress to other cities.
“Had the report included a comparative analysis, Washington County would be reported as one of the lowest residential water users in the state having achieved a 26 percent reduction in use from 2000-2010 – (latest data available) compared to the state average of 18 percent,” Thompson said.
The district does believe that some agricultural water will be converted in the future, Thompson said, although currently it is not “unused” but rather being used for agricultural purposes.
- Lake Powell Pipeline documents – search for docket number P-12966
- Conserve Southwest Utah, formerly Citizens for Dixie’s Future, Lake Powell Pipeline web page
- Utah Rivers Council Lake Powell Pipeline
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.