Loving Our Lands: Thirsty Cities And The Lake Powell Pipeline

Aug 21, 2018

Anyone who’s visited St. George in the southwestern corner of Utah knows that it’s hot and dry, one of the driest cities in the United States. But it’s also one of the fastest growing. Growing populations need water, and at less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, how does St. George get it?

One proposed way is from the Lake Powell Pipeline, also known as the LPP. Officials say the pipeline will bring water to the St. Geroge area in a "cost-effective, dependable and environmentally responsible way."

Others disagree.

“The Lake Powell Pipeline is a terrible idea that can’t be paid for, is completely unnecessary, and has a legacy of financial and environmental impacts that will last for 50 years or more,” said Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council.

The proposed pipeline 140 miles long, expected to deliver over 80,000 acre-feet of water per year from Lake Powell to Washington County.

Credit llputah.org

“St George has enough water for a community of 400,000 people’s annual water use today, that’s the [Washington County Water Conservancy] district’s own newsletters indicate," Frankel said. "They have 105,000 acre-feet of water today. What’s going on is that spending advocates that want billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money are cajoling and deceiving the public into thinking there is a water shortage in St. George where none exists.”

Here's Ronald Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

"It primarily is tasked to develop and conserve a water supply for the residents of Washington County," he said. "Anyone who’s been in Washington County for any amount of time knows we are [a] significant growth area and have been since the 1970s. We’ve gone from a community of 14,000 people to 165,000, and all of the population forecasts from the state forecast that we’ll be over half a million people by the early 2060s.

"While we think we’re doing pretty well with conservation, alone conservation will not meet your long-term needs, so in order to get a more diverse water supply and a water supply that will sustain the projected number of people we expect to live here, or at least the state expects to live here, then we’ve got to have an additional source of water.”

I asked Thompson how much this project will cost.

“Well the current forecast is about $1.4 billion," he said.

Critics have argued that the actual cost might be much higher and that the debt incurred could jeopardize Utah’s triple-A bond rating. Sources of funding to pay this off over decades will include impact fees, water rates and property taxes. The ways in which this pipeline will be paid is one thing, but another important question is whether or not a pipeline can even sustain St. George in the coming decades. 

“When people pound on the table and say ‘we have a right to that water,’ that doesn’t make it rain, and all pipelines take water from one group of people and give it to another group of people," said Dan McCool, a professor at the University of Utah. "The [Colorado] River doesn’t even make it to the sea, so any water that’s allocated, diverted and used in the upper basin from now on means there is a commensurate loss of water in the lower basin.

"First of all, that raises some ethical and moral questions. Is this really a good way to treat your neighbors, is this a viable attitude regarding water management in a crowded West where we all have to live together and share resources. And second, even if you get the water, climate change and other changes in the basin and additional diversions, put all that together and you’ve got a pipeline going to a dry lake.”

Ronald Thompson doesn’t necessarily agree.

“That’s water that belongs to the upper basin states, including Utah, it does not belong to the lower basin, and while I certainly think we ought to have a comity, when you get down to whose water is it, it’s Utah and Colorado and Wyoming’s water that we’re really talking about here," he said. "The real issue here in my mind is two-fold from the environmental community: those who don’t want any more growth, and those who are committed to the decommissioning of the Glen Canyon Dam and are concerned that if you get a major population center tied to that facility it’s more difficult to drain.”

Speaking of environmentalists, I spoke with legendary river-runner Ken Sleight. He believes, along with Dan McCool, that Mother Nature might throw a monkey wrench into this entire system.

“Lake Powell is going to be a thing of the past," Sleight said. "Why build a pipeline when there’s not going to be any water, or probably very low, and water probably not suitable for piping? There’s so many unknown answers right at this time in this drought that we’re having and this global warming, that to me it’d be stupid at this time to even think about a pipeline.”

Support for Loving Our Lands To Death is made possible in part by the USU Quinney College of Natural Resources, where students and faculty promote the sustainability of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Information can be found here