Letter to the Editor: ‘Plentiful and cheap water’ in Washington County is coming to an end

Stock image, St. George News

OPINION — Our “water agencies,” Utah’s Division of Water Resources and the Washington County Water Conservancy District, have the best intentions. They have done a terrific job providing reliable, safe, plentiful and cheap water. Due to our growth, our prodigious water use and the dramatic change in Colorado Plateau precipitation, “plentiful and cheap” is ending.

Entrance to the Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George, Utah, Nov. 26, 2018 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

A legislative audit determined Utah’s water data was too inaccurate to help plot a solution. The Division of Water Resources is working to fix that, and the “2015 Municipal & Industrial Water Use Report is an honest and fundamental start, but its scope excludes some key issues: agricultural water use, water right security, water use targets and water management practices.

The Conservancy District repeated these claims in several recent public messages without factual references and refusing open, public analysis:

  • Claim 1: “We need the Lake Powell Pipeline.” The real need is enough water to enable growth. The Lake Powell Pipeline (LPP) is a proposed solution to that need. It should not be accepted without an open assessment and discussion of the risks and affordability.”
  • Claim 2: “We need a second water source. It would be nice, but it’s not necessary, and the risk and expense may make it unwise.”
  • Claim 3: “We reduced our water use by 1 billion gallons over 5 years.” A good start, but only a 1 percent reduction – small compared to other states.
  • Claim 4: “We use less than 60 percent of other Utah counties.” As they themselves have said, disparities in the types of water use and demographics make direct comparisons invalid. No analysis was provided to adjust for these disparities. We compare poorly to other urbanized Utah counties and very poorly to conscientious Southwest communities.
  • Claim 5: “This is in spite of our county being the hottest and driest in the state.” Dryness is a reason to use the least water, not the most.
  • Claim 6: “$60 million was spent on saving water.” Our analysis of these expenses shows they were not spent on high-impact, low-cost targets, such as building code changes, water budgeting, tiered pricing and informative billing.

The unmentioned fact: The Lake Powell Pipeline might not be built, and we aren’t ready with an alternative. The Conservancy District is selling the pipeline to taxpayers: “We’re trying hard to save water, we’re doing great, we need the LPP. Buy it.” No factual basis is offered. The 12-year, $33 million (and counting) Lake Powell Pipeline study lacks open consideration of issues and alternatives.

Conserve Southwest Utah has been researching and questioning the pipeline, advocating improved water management throughout that period, largely met with silence. The key issues are:

Water demand 

Our water agencies obscure our unsustainable water use by not setting reasonable targets based on achievements elsewhere, not recognizing changes in the Colorado watershed and not implementing a comprehensive water management plan to manage our water supply and demand in the manner necessary to meet the challenge.

Stock image | Photo by Piyaset/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Statewide, roughly 80 percent of water is used in agriculture (largely water-intensive alfalfa for cattle feed, much of it exported), 10 percent on landscapes (mostly grass yards and golf courses), 5 percent inside homes and 5 percent in businesses.

Washington County uses less on agriculture and more on grass, trying to look like the Midwest instead of the desert.

The Conservancy District is sending a false message that we’re doing great and spending wisely on conservation. Our analysis shows spending is not focused on high-yield projects.

Water supply 

Data on our local water supply is lacking, but our analysis indicates we have enough local water to support our growth with just modest conservation.

And an analysis of Utah’s use of its Colorado River allocation indicates we’re likely already using it all. The state’s own records of our Colorado River usage indicate usage of about twice our lawful allocation (of 1.38 million acre-feet yearly) has been approved and that allocation is unrealistic, based on the 1922 Colorado River Compact assumptions on river flows.

The Lake Powell Pipeline’s water right appears low in priority, at high risk of being preempted by older, more senior rights as demand increases and flows decrease. As our water agencies declare the pipeline’s water right “the most secure on the river,” there is no analysis supporting that, and nobody in authority has even asked for it.


The financial risk to Washington County’s economy is significant. The governor appointed an Executive Water Finance Board to evaluate the risks and alternatives. The economists’ report submitted to the board found the Conservancy District’s financial analysis to be flawed and unrealistic. They proposed an open public technical review; the district refused.

There is no analysis of “affordability.” We trust the board will force this analysis.

The alternative: Improved management of our local water

This really isn’t an alternative: It must be done, sooner or later. While our analysis indicates there is much more usable water in the county than our water agencies choose to recognize, it also indicates we can easily cut our water use without impacting our landscaping’s visual appeal, the viability of our agriculture or our population and economic growth.

Conceptual designs for the new Desert Color master plan community in the southern end of St. George include plans for an 18-acre man-made lagoon | Photo courtesy of Desert Color partners, St. George News

Water budgeting, a system of establishing a usage budget for each property based on its use and landscaping, combined with ordinances defining reasonable desert landscaping, have reduced water use by 50 percent in other vibrant, growing southwest communities.

A cost-benefit-driven water management plan, integrated across the “supply chain” (wholesale and retail) including both supply and demand, would be much more effective than current management/planning practices.

These efforts can be undertaken at a fraction of the cost of the Lake Powell Pipeline, incrementally, avoiding huge financing costs, with low risk. It can support our projected growth.

Our water agencies and elected representatives certainly do not support the pipeline unconditionally, yet they won’t state (or don’t know) under what conditions they support it. Our work with them to reveal and assess their conditions is going much too slow. Instead, the Lake Powell Pipeline is being pushed and marketed with blinders, while improving management of our local water is given much talk and little action. We need an open public analysis and honest dialogue.

See this letter’s references here. Send questions or comments to [email protected].

Submitted by TOM BUTINE, board president of Conserve Southwest Utah.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

Email: [email protected]

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  • Carpe Diem December 21, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    Nahhhh, when the Govt is involved they act and ask questions later.

  • Borowiak Mark December 21, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Great op-ed. Contains many of the points I was making while running for state rep. I would have been the lone area advocate for questioning building the LPP. ALL others stated they were 100% in favor. Not 95% certain, but 100% sure. Keep up the fight, but from what I can see, change in direction will require citizens to vote for new leadership. Sadly, few are willing to challenge the establishment.

  • Not_So_Much December 21, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    I hope more people of St George and Washington county as a whole become involved with local government activities by attending meetings and asking questions as needed. The water issue is one of many that, at the very least, elected officials need to be transparent and open to the public. It does take time and effort, but in the end it’s worth it.

    Let’s start by demanding we increase the number of county commissioners to at least 5 if not 7. The county has grown significantly and 3 people making all the decisions no longer is viable. The county should be split into districts so all voices can be heard. While we’re at in let’s throw in term limits, say 2 or 3 and that’s it.

  • Kilroywashere December 21, 2018 at 5:33 pm

    Ripped out my front lawn last year and put in a desert garden with a drip system. This will be my first winter with desert plants. So not sure what will be left come Spring. It has been a learning curve and I have lost around 7+ plants in the process. I only buy what’s on sale at Star Nursery to keep costs down and I am on learning regarding what survives. Also installing a rainwater catch system in the backyard. In the future, grass lawns will be curbed as we are in the desert, and one of the fastest growing counties in the country to boot. It is inevitable and obvious the current paradigm cannot be sustained much longer. Time to buck up!

    • Carpe Diem December 22, 2018 at 8:00 am

      Many of the Sonoran, or low desert plants wont survive severe frosts. (ie: Ocotillo, Saquaro) There was a boatload of Ocotillo planted during the 2005ish boom times. Few survived. I was amazed how many palms survived the near-zero temps we had about 6 years ago, though I think we lost about 10% around town. There are still a few tall dead ones out and about.

  • Real Life December 21, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Mr. Butine, this is an absolutely amazing piece. It is very informative and also very disheartening at the same time. People in this area live in a bubble, and that bubble is going to pop if they do not learn to conserve our most precious resource. I wish you, and people like you luck in changing the mindset before it’s to late.

    • Comment December 21, 2018 at 8:08 pm

      I was told “our children” are “our most precious resource”. Maybe that only applies to non-desert places. LOL 😉

      • Real Life December 21, 2018 at 8:25 pm

        Lol, okay. Second most. That said, they face a grim future with no water.

  • Tim December 21, 2018 at 8:44 pm

    I feel the same as the author. Wisdom says follow the money. The Lake Powell Pipeline reeks of planning to make the citizens pay for the method that makes developers millions. I think is’t a bondoggle in the making. If the pipeline is necessary make those that profit from it pay for it.

    • Comment December 21, 2018 at 10:22 pm

      The voice of the peasants matters not. Let them eat cake.

  • utahdiablo December 21, 2018 at 10:11 pm

    Let the POS developers pay for the LPP….screw them

  • tazzman December 22, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    Great piece Mr. Butine.

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