ST. GEORGE — Imagine a future in Southern Utah where water is so scarce, officials have moved past rationing water for homeowners and farmers – and have begun ordering some residents to leave.
While a dystopian scenario where Washington County runs out of water may seem unlikely, it’s not an unimaginable one for Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
“We’re not in a position where we dare say ‘we’re not going to need more water’ as an answer,” Thompson said. “If we were, we’d have to decide who gets to stay here and who has to leave.”
The only conceivable and most cost-effective option to avoid something like a “last in, first out” policy is the Lake Powell Pipeline, Thompson said. The project, currently in its planning stages, would include nearly 140 miles of pipeline under the ground to deliver water from Lake Powell to Washington and Kane counties.
Critics say the $1.1 billion-$1.8 billion required to pay for the project is just an example of wasteful government spending and is not the best way to supply water to Southern Utah. Washington County already has enough water sources to last for years, said Zachary Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council.
“This Chicken Little fear that we’re growing and running out of water is tired and untrue,” Frankel said.
Without the Lake Powell Pipeline, Frankel said Washington County will continue to boom with its existing water sources and expanding with smaller water projects.
St. George is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation, according to estimates in March from the U.S. Census Bureau. But while St. George has been growing, water usage in the county has decreased by over 1 billon gallons over five years, according to the most recent numbers from 2015.
That amounts to about 143 gallons of water used each day for every person in the county.
“If our water usage has declined like Washington County says it has, then great,” Frankel said. “Why are they not going back and amending their permit application for the Lake Powell Pipeline? It’s just a special interest game to convince Utahns to waste billions of dollars.”
While the water usage in the county has gone down, there is still a lot more that can be done for water conservation before something as large as a billion-dollar pipeline needs to be built. Keeping the water use at 143 gallons of water per person per day is still too large, Frankel said.
Utah’s neighbor to the south uses a lot less water per capita than Washington County. While Arizona has similar climate and water sources to Southern Utah, the water use is at about 100 gallons of water per person per day, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Another Western state has plans to go even further to conserve precious water. The years-long drought in California may be over, but the Golden State’s Legislature still made drastic steps to increase water conservation with a law passed this year that would limit indoor water use to 55 gallons per person per day by 2022 and even further to 50 gallons in 2030.
The number of temporary residents in Southern Utah may make water use seem larger in Washington County than other American cities in the desert, Thompson said. A lot of this water use can be attributed to tourists who come to Southern Utah to golf, shop, attend college and have second homes here.
“All of these extend the user base way beyond what your permanent residents are using.”
As more homes and more businesses are built in Washington County, less and less water will be consumed, Thompson said. As more homes are built in St. George, the amount of agricultural land in the area will decrease. Agricultural land uses significantly more water than residential and industrial land.
Apartment buildings, which are starting to be built more often in St. George, use even less water than homes because of the lack of lawn area, he said.
“If you want to build all high-rise apartments or condos or whatever you call them and stick people in that kind of of environment, the per-capita use is going to be a lot less than if you have a (sic) 8,000-square foot lot. That’s where we’re headed.”
But despite decreased water use, the Lake Powell Pipeline is still necessary to sustain the growth of Southern Utah for 50 years to come, not just for the people living in Southern Utah today, Thompson said. As St. George’s economy continues to grow, so does the need to have backup water sources like the Lake Powell Pipeline.
“In Southern Utah, we have the unique situation where we have young families having children, but we also have a lot of people migrating to the area who are moving in,” said Karry Rathje, spokeswoman for the water district. “How would you determine who would be users of the available water source and who would not? That’s not our call.”
The idea of building pipelines to transport water is not unique to Southern Utah, she said. Thousands of miles of pipelines crisscross many Western states to deliver water, including 4,400 miles of pipelines in the Mni Wiconi Rural Water System in South Dakota, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Even the ancient Romans built aqueducts that stretched dozens of miles to deliver water.
“We’re fortunate in Washington County to have water rights (on the Colorado River) that we can pull from with the Lake Powell Pipeline,” Rathje said. “Not all municipalities with limited water resources can say they have that.”
St. George Mayor Jon Pike, who sits on the board of trustees for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, also sees the Lake Powell Pipeline as the best option to provide water to Southern Utah for generations to come because there isn’t any similar alternative.
Other options like desalinating the Pah Tempe Hot Springs, which are owned by the district, are far more expensive than the amount of money required to build the Lake Powell Pipeline.
“Shy of (desalinating the Pah Tempe Hot Springs), there really isn’t anything that has the kind of volume that the Lake Powell Pipeline could bring,” Pike said.
Options like rationing water for outdoor use or placing limits on the amount of growth in St. George to preserve water likely won’t happen soon because “that’s something citizens here don’t seem to want to do,” Pike said.
“Unless that changes, there’s a lot of private property in Washington County that is yet to be developed. If the Lake Powell Pipeline isn’t built, either cities and the county will have to say to owners and developers ‘if you want to develop, you got to bring your own water,’ or you need to deal with greater conservation efforts.”
Pike would still be OK with a public vote on the Lake Powell Pipeline because the voters are the ones who will be paying the bill with taxes.
While the Washington County Water Conservancy District is big on the pipeline, it is also big on water conservancy as its name should imply, Rathje said. The district has invested nearly $60 million in recent conservation efforts, Rathje said.
“That’s a pretty big price tag. We want people to know that conservation is essential and that the cities are on board. We’re doing great things and we will be doing greater things in the future.”
If the Lake Powell Pipeline is ever built, community water leaders like Thompson and Pike may never get to drink a glass of Lake Powell water. Whether they’d even need to if they lived to see 2060 is still up for debate.
“This won’t be for me,” Pike said. “I’m not going to be the mayor in 50 years. I don’t even know if I’m going to be alive in 50 years. But (the Lake Powell Pipeline) will be for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
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