Claiming lack of transparency, coalition of nonprofits, businesses seek more information on Lake Powell Pipeline

Lake Powell, Arizona, date unspecified | Photo by roadtrippinwithbob from Pixabay

ST. GEORGE — Following the release of a draft environmental impact statement for the Lake Powell Pipeline project last week, a coalition of businesses and nonprofit groups are requesting that government agencies release financial data they believe is a part of a 30-plus page section of the study marked “confidential” and therefore unavailable for public review.

The Stateline boat ramp at Lake Powell, Utah, date not specified. | Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

The Utah Division of Water Resources issued a statement Wednesday morning that the cost estimates of the pipeline project were already highlighted in the draft study. As for the 30-plus pages that had been marked confidential, that was done by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for security reasons, the division states.

“Of the thousands of pages available to the public in the draft EIS and accompanying appendices, only the project’s detailed engineering specs were marked as confidential by the Bureau of Reclamation for security reasons, consistent with the practices for safeguarding sensitive information as outlined in the agency’s Directives and Standards,” Kim Wells, a spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Water Resources, said in Wednesday’s statement.

The estimated cost of the Lake Powell Pipeline found in the draft EIS estimates the project to run around $1.4 billion for the construction with overall costs running between $1.8-2 billion.

The Utah Division of Water Resources stated these estimates used by the Bureau of Reclamation are based on a legislative audit released last year that cites the preliminary costs of the pipeline to be around $1.43 billion based on a 2015 engineering study, yet also reported the cost could range from $1.8-2.4 billion if financing costs are included.

Stock image, St. George News

The Utah Rivers Council has accused the Utah Division of Water Resources and Washington County Water Conservancy District of not being transparent about the potential $2.4 billion estimate.

Utahns have spent $36 million planning this pipeline, and we’re given just 400 words refuting the auditors’ $2.4 billion cost estimate. Utah taxpayers deserve transparency on how the costs were created by third-party consultants who received our tax money,” Zachary Frankel, Executive Director of Utah Rivers Council, said in a press release issued Wednesday afternoon.

Both the Utah Division of Water Resources and Utah Rivers Council point to the following section from the 2019 audit:

Current Cost Estimates Are Preliminary Until EIS and Final Project Design Are Completed

A 2015 engineering study placed the project’s initial construction cost estimate at $1.43 billion, with a range from $1.14 to $1.86 billion. These estimates were based on the largest impact with maximum assets that could be considered in the project to ensure everything was included in the permitting process. Future cost-benefit analyses may reduce the need for some assets and thus reduce the project’s cost. However, given the long time frame before construction starts, inflation alone could increase the pipeline’s construction cost to $2.4 billion by 2025, while other factors could increase the cost even more. Again, since the cost of the pipeline is not yet finalized and the financing structure has yet to be determined, this audit examines the future revenue potential of the WCWCD to assess its ability to pay for the project.

Opponents of the pipeline have issued Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) requests to the Utah Division of Water Resources asking for any and all information related to the 2019 audit, along with the “construction, operation and maintenance, replacement, or any other cost estimates of the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline” that occurred between January 2010 and May 2020.

“A group of nonprofits and businesses is worried that a state water agency is intentionally withholding cost estimates from Utahns because of public criticism of cutting public services to make way for pipeline spending,” a press release from the Utah Rivers Council states.

In this Jan. 27, 2020, file photo, lawmakers conduct business on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City.  | AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File, St. George News

“A 2019 Legislative Audit on the pipeline estimated it would cost $2.4 billion, but noted that the 2020 Environmental Impact Study would have more detailed cost figures. Instead, the Utah Division of Water Resources refused to provide details about how it estimated pipeline costs and cited private emails and other material, which was not released to the public for review with the rest of the DEIS. The Division 2015 Pipeline cost estimate is $1 billion less than the 2019 Audit cost estimate. The agency also redacted some 36 pages of engineering information from the impact study.”

According to Utah Division of Water Resources Public Information Officer Kim Wells, the division did not redact the 36 pages of engineering drawings.

“The Bureau of Reclamation redacted the information, which is done for security reasons by federal agencies,” Wells explained. “A spreadsheet of cost information was provided to Reclamation as part of the draft EIS process.”

The Utah Rivers Council press release goes on to state that the various groups involved are worried that state leaders will choose to fund the Lake Powell Pipeline project while cutting funding to public services in order to make up for losses caused by the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We deserve to know how much it costs, especially since public services are being cut to make way for pipeline spending during this pandemic economy,” Frankel said.

The proposed 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline would bring around 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Washington County communities once built. State and local water officials tout the pipeline as a much-needed secondary source of water going into the future, particularly in regard to the county’s continuing growth.

A map showing the proposed routes for the Lake Powell Pipeline. The Highway Alternative is marked by the red line, while the Southern Alternative (the preferred path) is marked in blue. | Map courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, St. George News

The recently released draft EIS states a present need for the county to have an additional source of water, though a final decision on whether the federal government will allow it to be built remains to be seen.

Frankel and the Utah Rivers Council have long asserted that the pipeline will be too expensive and saddle Washington County residents with a massive increase in water and impact fees and property taxes in order to pay for it. There is also doubt from the Utah Rivers Council and other groups that the water the pipeline hopes to tap won’t be there due to the impacts climate change continues to have on the Colorado River.

Transparency is critically important if policymakers, the press, and the public are to determine whether the Lake Powell Pipeline is in Utah’s best interest,” Matthew Weinstein, state priorities partnership director for Voices for Utah Children, said. “Infrastructure investments are important to the quality of life and standard of living of the next generation. But, they must be cost-effective uses of taxpayer dollars, and that can only be determined if all the facts and data are available for public scrutiny.”

The groups that issued GRAMA request to the Utah Division of Water Resources include: Utah Rivers Council, Alliance for a Better Utah, Voices for Utah Children, Crossroads Urban Center, Utahns Against Hunger, Acton Utah, Utah Citizens Council, Patagonia, Western Rivers Flyfishing, Holiday River Expeditions, Destination Sports and Adventures, Caffe Ibis, Wasatch Touring and The Gear Room.

The Utah Division of Water Resources says it will respond to the GRAMA request by July 1.

The public is asked to review the draft EIS and submit their comments between now and Sept. 8. Comments can be submitted as follows:

Ed note: The Utah Division of Water Resources clarified information about redacted data.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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