ST. GEORGE — While six other Western states that rely on the Colorado River for their water needs sent a letter to the federal government asking it to halt the approval process on the Lake Powell Pipeline project, local officials are hoping a “long-standing tradition” of cooperation and consensus between the Colorado Basin states will prevail so the project can move forward without too much delay.
In a joint letter Tuesday, water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to “refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement of Record of Decision regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline until such time as the Seven Basin States and the Department of the Interior are able to reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns raised by the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project.”
The letter also states that the Colorado River Basin states face the daunting challenge of supplying water to growing population centers in the West while relying on a source that is threatened by climate change and continuing drought.
If the approval process for the Lake Powell Pipeline is not halted so concerns can be addressed, the letter states it may result in “multi-year litigation” that could also complicate future interstate cooperation concerning use of the Colorado River.
“That is not a recipe for creating the kind of meaningful and positive change needed to sustain the Colorado River in the coming decades,” the letter states.
The states have enjoyed a longstanding relationship of cooperation and consensus between each other and the federal government in relation to use of the Colorado River, the letter states. This has helped maintain the integrity of the river in the face of growing demand and decreasing supply.
“Utah has been a critical partner through all of these efforts,” the letter states, adding water officials would like to maintain the consensus the states have fostered rather than take their issues to court.
The Lake Powell Pipeline project would divert 86,000 acre-feet (106 billion liters) of water to Washington County, Utah. The state is entitled to the water under agreements between the states that date back a century, but the project’s critics worry the pipeline could further deplete Lake Powell — one of the two man-made reservoirs where Colorado River water is stored.
If water levels in either Lake Powell or the other reservoir — Lake Mead — fall farther, states could be forced to limit the amount of water they can send to growing cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and farmers throughout the region that help stock supermarkets.
Under the agreements between the seven states, cuts would hit Arizona, California and Nevada before affecting Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Despite a potential threat of litigation if their concerns are not resolved, Brock Belnap, an assistant general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said Thursday the water district hopes issues can be resolved without too much disturbance to the pipeline’s timetable.
“We appreciate that they express they want to resolve the issues they may have and we are pledging likewise to work with them to address the issue they may have in regard to the Law of the River in the Colorado River,” Belnap said.
The “Law of the River” Belnap refers to is the 1922 Colorado River Compacts of 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compact which governs how the river is allocated to the basin states.
An example of the issues some of the other states have is that Washington County is geographically located in the Lower Colorado River Basin, Belnap said, and the compacts state that water rights cannot be transferred from the one basin to the other. However, Utah is counted among the Upper Colorado River Basin States, and the compacts also say each state has a right to develop its allocated portion of the Colorado River within its boundaries, he said.
Due to the language on the matter being somewhat ambiguous, it is one of the issues the states want clarification on, Belnap said.
“We believe there are real positive avenues open to us to work with the basin states to resolve the concerns that led to their letter,” Belnap said.
The government received more than 10,000 public comments on an environmental impact report for the proposed pipeline before Tuesday’s deadline, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Marlon Duke said. The Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, is expected to issue a final report, which could bring the project a step closer to approval.
Although the proposal isolates Utah from the other states that rely on the river, it’s committed to bringing water it’s entitled to tap to those who need it, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
He said the project has been under review for about 20 years, and many other projects have gone through federal review while states worked through unresolved issues.
“We can still work in collaboration with the basin states while also preserving Utah’s water allotment,” he said in a statement.
The states are contending with a drier future as they renegotiate agreements that detail how Colorado River water is doled out.
As far as Washington County is concerned, local water officials have stated that a secondary water supply is needed given the county only has one source in the Virgin River. Reliance on the Virgin River alone in the future is not sustainable, Belnap and others have said. That is why they are anxious to see the project move forward in the wake of continuing population growth.
“The LPP is critical to meeting the needs of Southern Utah by enhancing the reliability of Washington County’s water system,” a September 2020 newsletter from the water district states. “Without the project, the economic viability and water security of one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States will be harmed.”
The time table for the Lake Powell Pipeline anticipates the Final Environmental Impact Statement and a Record of Decision potentially approving of the project released in November and early 2021 respectively, according to a presentation given during an online meeting of the Lake Powell Pipeline Committee Thursday.
The final design for the pipeline project would be expected sometime during the early 2020s, while actual construction would begin sometime in the second half of the decade.
Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, attended the meeting and asked if the committee planned to halt the project due to the concerns expressed by the other states in Tuesday’s letter.
Adams, who is a member of the committee, said, “things were happening really fast” and that the committee was working together to address the issue. “That’s where we stand on that at the moment,” Adams said.
“Utah’s head-in-the-sand approach to the Colorado River during this era of climate change is frustrating,” Frankel said in a press release from the Utah Rivers Council issued after the committee meeting.
“Downstream states have cut their use of Colorado River in 2020 and are decades ahead of Utah in water conservation,” Frankel said. “The only way there’s water for this pipeline is if it is taken from existing Utah users like (Central Utah Project) water users, farmers in the Uinta Basin or other users.”
While the letter from the other basin states adds to the ongoing complexity of the Lake Powell Pipeline project and some of the issues surrounding it, Belnap said something like this wasn’t unexpected.
“It’s not unexpected that a major water project in the West is going to have to go through a fairly long development process,” he said. “There are so many varied interests involved and there are so many pathways to raise those and have them addressed. Sometimes things just come out of left field.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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