First-ever Colorado River water shortage declared. Conservationists: ‘Lake Powell Pipeline makes no sense’

ST. GEORGE — Following the first-ever water shortage declaration for the Colorado River on Monday, conservation groups are warning that the approaching cuts in water use won’t be enough, and they continue to call for an immediate moratorium on the Lake Powell Pipeline and other large-scale water projects and advocate for plans that do more to address climate change.

Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, speaks about the Lake Powell Pipeline during an Aug. 16, 2021, online press conference about Colorado River cuts. | Photo courtesy of the Utah Rivers Council, St. George News

“St. George is not going to get their pipeline,” Robin Silver, a co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said during an online press conference held by a collective of conservation groups responding to Monday’s announced water shortage.

“If St. George gets their pipeline, well then the rest of us are screwed, so that’s not going to happen. … (They) need to work together with the rest of us and figure out to get out of this fix.”

The Lake Powell Pipeline, which would snake over 140 miles across parts of Utah and Arizona between Lake Powell and Washington County, would divert up to 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir. The state is entitled to the water under agreements that date back a century, but the project’s critics say that water simply isn’t available anymore due to the Colorado being overallocated and shrinking due to the impacts of climate change and the continuing drought.

“There’s more paper water than wet water that exist on the river right now,” said J.B. Hamby, director of the Imperial Irrigation District out of California. “The Lake Powell Pipeline makes no sense. … We can’t be placing new limits on the system.”

The U.S Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that Tier I shortage limitations will be implemented starting next year for the Lower Colorado River Basin region, which gets water from the Colorado River via Lake Mead. Specifically, this includes Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. California will not be subject to restrictions at this time due to having senior water rights.

While the cuts in water impact the Lower Basin for the time being, water officials anticipate cuts to the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) in the future as the ongoing drought increases in severity.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the upper portions of the Colorado River Basin in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average despite near-average snowfall last winter.

A white band of newly-exposed rock along the canyon walls at Lake Powell highlights the difference between today’s lake level and the lake’s high-water mark near Antelope Point Marina on Friday, July 30, 2021, near Page, Ariz. This summer, the water levels hit a historic low amid a climate change-fueled megadrought engulfing the U.S. West. | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

The projected unregulated inflow into Lake Powell – the amount that would have flowed to Lake Mead without the benefit of storage behind Glen Canyon Dam – is approximately 32% of average. Total Colorado River system storage currently is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.

“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement issued Monday.

The shortage restrictions are a part of preexisting Colorado river operations and drought contingency plans previously agreed upon by the Colorado River Basin states.

Under the restrictions, Arizona will be hit the most, with a 512,000 acre-foot reduction in its annual water draw, which account for 18% of its allotment of the Colorado River. Those anticipated to be the most impacted by the cuts will be the state’s farmers. Nevada will see a 7% reduction at 21,000 acre-feet, and Mexico will have its share reduced by 5%, or 80,000 acre-feet.

An acre-foot of water is approximately 325,000 gallons, which is estimated to be two household’s worth of water use in a year.

Zach Frankel, of the Utah Rivers Council, expressing frustration over warnings about the Lake Powell Pipeline being ignored by Utahns during an Aug. 16, 2021 online press conference about Colorado River cuts. | Photo courtesy of the Utah Rivers Council, St. George News

Efforts are also being made to keep Lake Powell’s water elevations high enough for Glen Canyon Dam to continue generating the roughly 5 billion kilowatts of electricity it supplies each year.

Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council, called the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan one that primarily focuses on maintaining Lake Mead and Lake Powell while ignoring the overall threat climate change brings to the Colorado River.

“Its effectively climate change denial,” he said.

Related to the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would primarily benefit Washington County if built, Frankel said it was frustrating that efforts to educate Utahns about the folly of the project have largely gone ignored.

“We have been fighting for 10 years to demonstrate to Utahns, and especially St. George, that the Lake Powell Pipeline is not a gift; it is an albatross,” he said, adding that proponents of the project were being “outright deceitful about facts and information.”

Information the Utah River Council has shared in the past – which Frankel said anyone could see the truth of if that information was better known – relate to claims that water rates in Washington County will jump 500% to pay for the pipeline if built, which will, in turn, make people use less water, eliminating the need for the pipeline. The pipeline is currently estimated to cost near $2 billion if built. Opponents claim the real cost will be two to three times that estimate.

The Utah River Council also claims that the Washington County Water Service District actually has 160,000 acre-feet of yet to be developed water in its system and is hiding that fact to promote the need for the pipeline.

“Those facts just keep getting ignored by pipeline proponents,” Frankel said. “At some point you just can’t reason with someone who refuses to have facts and information.”

A map of the Colorado River Basin | Map courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, St. George News

Water conservationists shine a spotlight on St. George and Washington County due to how much water the area uses, which has been estimated to exceed larger communities like Las Vegas and Phoenix by comparison.

“We all need to be demonized,” Silver said in regards to water use overall. “We’re all living beyond our means in the Southwest. The situation in St. George just happens to be one of the more outrageous.”

State and local water officials say the numbers quoted by pipeline opponents are not entirely accurate due to a lack of uniformity in how water use is measured between various communities.

As a part of its call for better planning for future Colorado River use, the coalition of conservation groups continued its call for a moratorium on all major water division projects on the river, with the Lake Powell Pipeline being among the chief targets of this demand.

Supporters of the Lake Powell Pipeline project, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, say it’s necessary for the future sustainability and water security of Washington County and to help sustain the continuing growth of the area, which is solely reliant on the Virgin River and its watershed for water.

Though the Bureau of Reclamation initially approved to move the project forward last summer when it released a draft environmental impact study that seemingly recognized a need for the Lake Powell Pipeline, it was later challenged due to the objection of the other Colorado River Basin states that demanded a second look at the issue, but work on the impact statement is still underway.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ed. note: This report was clarified to indicate that work is still underway on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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