ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Water Conservancy District must release documents related to a repayment plan for the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline, the Utah State Records Committee ruled Thursday.
The Utah Rivers Council requested the repayment plan from the Washington County Water Conservancy District in December. The request was denied, and that decision was appealed to the Utah Department of Administrative Services State Records Committee.
The Utah Rivers Council believes the repayment plan will show massive rate increases for water users in Southern Utah, executive director Zach Frankel said in a press statement. Frankel refers to the repayment plan as secret and said the district has denied such a plan exists.
However, water district spokesperson Karry Rathje said preliminary financing scenarios are not secret and have been discussed at public meetings. The Utah Rivers Council is “confusing a preliminary, interactive exercise with a repayment plan.”
In an earlier interview, water district officials 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.
The Utah State Records Committee ruled in favor of a Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, request from the Rivers Council for “all documentation of the WCWCD repayment plan for the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, and schedule of payments referenced widely by the Division of Water Resources and WCWCD,” according to the hearing request on the State Records Committee website.
Tom Butine, president of Conserve Southwest Utah, was called as a witness in the hearing. The question, Butine said, was ‘Does a financial model exist?’
“I knew it existed, I’d seen it,” he said. Butine said he had taken extensive notes about the model in a meeting and had identified a number of issues. After sending a letter to the district outlining his analysis a technical peer review meeting with the water district was supposed to be held in the fall of 2014.
“So I knew the model existed,” he said. “They’re using that model to justify affordability, so it ought to be public.”
The district must have a rough estimate of the pipeline costs in order to go forward with planning the pipeline, Butine said, after spending 10 years and many millions of dollars on planning and studies.
“They must have some idea of what the cost is. They wouldn’t do it totally blind. If not, it’s mismanagement.”
Even having a cost estimate with a 25 or 50 percent margin of error would be preferable to having no estimate, Butine said.
The issue is whether 500 percent increases in water rates for Washington County residents will be needed to repay the debt if the pipeline is built, Frankel said in a press statement. The proposed Lake Powell Pipeline will cost between $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion and must be paid by water recipients in water rate, impact fee and property tax increases, he said.
“We are elated we won this shell game with (the) water district,” Frankel said. “They haven’t been truthful about the impacts to Washington County taxpayers and its time to stop pretending they have a plan to pay for the billions in new debt they are proposing to spend for a water project no one needs.”
A repayment plan requires the completion of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process, Rathje said, which is necessary to determine the project route and design; an approved final design; cost estimates based on the final design; and legislatively approved financing terms.
“Absent this information, which is the foundation of a repayment plan, the data is incomplete and subject to change,” Rathje said.
“It is reasonable for people to want to know how much the Lake Powell Pipeline is going to cost and how it will be repaid. A repayment plan will be established after the completion of the steps identified above,” she said..
“The public will have the opportunity to review the costs, financing terms and repayment plan of the Lake Powell Pipeline before a commitment is made to begin construction.”
Alternatives to the pipeline
Many inexpensive alternative water sources are being ignored in favor of selecting the most expensive possible source of water, Frankel said.
However, Rathje said the district is pursuing work on several local projects that will come online prior to the Lake Powell Pipeline, but they will not yield sufficient supplies to meet the projected long-term demand.
“The Lake Powell Pipeline is currently the cheapest, long-term solution to Washington County’s water shortages,” Rathje said.
Conserve Southwest Utah’s position is that the pipeline is not needed and that there are many alternatives which should be explored, Butine said, including conservation and better management of existing local water sources.
Currently, agricultural water is not metered by the water district, Butine said. Agricultural water will be a source of future water supply as more farmland is converted to residential use.
“An acre of houses uses a lot less water than an acre of alfalfa,” he said.
Southern Utah could do much better in conserving outdoor water use, Butine said, and no serious steps in that direction are being taken. Many residents overwater their landscape, simply through lack of knowledge, and water rates are so low that residents have no incentive to conserve.
Butine would like to see the implementation of “water budgeting.” The Irvine Ranch model, for example, has been very successful at drastically reducing water usage in communities that use it. The model sets a water budget for individual properties based on census data and high-resolution satellite imagery to determine the number of people and the type of plants on individual properties. A water budget can then be determined and incentives set up for compliance.
After two or three years of being on the system, and with a lot of education, communities are seeing a 50 percent reduction in water use, Butine said.
Another issue Butine sees is how treated waste water is lost – discharged back into the Virgin River where it flows away downstream. This water could be captured and reused for outdoor watering. Currently, drinking-quality water is used for most outdoor watering.
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