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A Look At The Current Status Of The Lake Powell Pipeline Project

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Jud Burkett, The Spectrum & Daily News
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Last summer, St. George in Washington County suffered 155 days of drought, the longest since records have been kept. St. George uses a lot of water thanks to its growing population and high per-capita usage. Water managers have been hoping the Lake Powell Pipeline will slake southern Utah’s thirst, but at around 140-miles long and well over a billion dollars, this is an extremely controversial project for a fiscally-conservative state. In April of this year, Kane County opted out, or at least partially.

“We actually did not pull completely out of the project itself. We pulled out of the environmental impact statement, and the reason we did that is because our population numbers projections have gone down in the last few years,” said Mike Noel, the General Manager/Executive Director for the Kane County Water Conservancy District.

 

You might remember Mike Noel for his 16 years in the Utah House of Representatives, during which time he lobbied for the reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, and introduced a bill that would rename the National Parks Highway after Donald Trump to thank him for that reduction. 

 

Specific to the Lake Powell Pipeline, you might know him as one of the loudest supporters for the project, which happened to run right next to his own property in Johnson Canyon. This potential conflict of interest was investigated after a complaint from the Utah Rivers Council, but is unlikely to be the reason Kane County pulled out last month. I also talked with Zachary Renstrom, the General Manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, about projections from the Kem C. Gardner Institute at the University of Utah.

 

“They prepare population growth predictions for the future,” Renstrom said. “For example, here in Washington County they’re predicting right now in 2060 that we’ll have about 300% growth. In that same time frame they have estimated and calculated that Kane County’s growth will only be about 50%. At this time, in the reasonable, foreseeable future, it kind of showed that Kane County didn’t need this water by 2060.”

 

It appears here that the two water managers are in agreement, but that’s not always the case, especially with respect to climate change, which is already affecting the arid west. 

 

“With climate warming, that is probably the biggest justification for the Lake Powell Pipeline,” Renstrom said. “So when you look at those models, our current drainage basin, the Virgin River, is going to be substantially affected, and so when we look around for what is the most reliable water source in the western United States, [it’s] the Colorado River.”

 

Renstrom’s predecessor with the Washington County Water Conservancy District agreed when I

spoke to him. But Noel is a climate sceptic.

 

“You can have 90% of scientists support something, but you can also have one or two scientists that say, that actually have the real data, because they discovered the fact that it may not be as people say,” Noel said. “So having a whole bunch of people together say it, and a bunch of the people that call themselves climate scientists they’re not really climate scientists. It’s kind of a unique situation. There weren’t really climate scientists when I went to school.”

 

It’s unclear what Noel means by the “real data,” but his concern about the validity of climate science is not new, nor is it unique to him. In an analysis on scientific consensus in the journal Environmental Research Letters, more than 97% of actively-publishing climate scientists agreed not only about the existence of climate change, but that it is being largely driven by humans. I asked him if there are people on the water board in Kane County that did have a scientific background.

“I would say no, that there’s no one that does have a specific degree in that area,” he said.

Conservation groups are concerned about the lack of scientific knowledge percolating through the water boards in Utah. I talked with Lisa Rutherford of Conserve Southwest Utah about the future of the Colorado River in the face of climate change.

“This river isn’t what people thought it was when they passed the 1922 Colorado River document and agreement,” Rutherford said. “ It’s not going to be able to sustain the growth that was envisioned back then, and some difficult decisions are going to be made, and they need to start paying attention to the real scientists and not the just the people who may have science backgrounds but are telling the leaders what they want to hear.”

Water boards tend to be populated by real estate developers and people that work in agriculture and already to own a lot of property, or come from families that do. Many are involved in local and state politics, and about 1 out of 3 make over $100,000 a year according to KSL News. 

Some general managers make about twice what the governor makes, and they are 

appointed—that means not elected—officials. This causes a lot of suspicion with taxpayers and people that want to use our natural resources conservatively. I talked with Sky Chaney, the president of the Taxpayers’ Association of Kane County.

“I think it’s been driven not by science, and not even by finance,” Chaney said. “The main concept has been ‘We need to get our share of the water.’ So, if you’re not informed and you think it’s going to be good for your business, you might believe that the pipeline would be a good deal. But if you look at the numbers, if you look at the fact it’s going to cost billions of dollars, and the [water] yield on it is going to be very, very expensive, and the water yield and the operation of it, it really isn’t that great  an idea. Yet, we hear from the other folks like Mike Noel that we really need the water. But when you look at the numbers, they’re fixed in such a way that they lead people to believe that they need the water.”

The saga of the LPP continues, and although Kane County is currently out of new environmental assessments, its board is still very much supportive of the project, which is continuing with state support and the support of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. Currently taxpayers and scientists don’t have a lot of say in the matter.