There are cheaper, more efficient ways to meet the water needs of a growing population in Southern Utah than a pipeline from Lake Powell, argue the project’s opponents.
The proposed Lake Powell pipeline would consist of about 140 miles of buried pipe which could bring up to 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell in Northern Arizona to Washington County in the southwestern corner of Utah. The pipeline would carry water from Utah’s share of the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, a majority of which would go to the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
State and local water officials in Utah have been pushing the controversial $1.8 billion water pipeline despite criticism from bordering Colorado River Basin states, six of which wrote the Secretary of the Interior last year requesting that the Bureau of Reclamation pause its ongoing environmental impact statement process until the seven states achieve a “consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns.”
Last month, an unlikely coalition of organizations from across the Colorado River Basin — including environmentalists, Nevada state lawmakers, the Mayor of Boulder City, and representatives for the Laughlin Chamber of Commerce — asked the federal government to place a moratorium on new dams and other water diversions on the river, including the Lake Powell pipeline.
The environmental group Western Resource Advocates has now released an alternative proposal to the pipeline, called the “Local Waters Alternative 2.0,” that argues future growth in Southern Utah can be supported instead by raising water rates on excessive water use, enhanced conservation, and better management of local water resources.
“As the Colorado River approaches its first-ever shortage declaration and Lake Powell approaches its lowest level on record, the West simply cannot afford the Lake Powell pipeline,” said John Cyran, senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates.
The group’s report offers a comprehensive alternative backed by data in partnership with American Rivers and prepared by the WaterDM, a Colorado-based engineering firm specializing in water resources management.
The report said improved management of the Virgin River and other local water sources could deliver up to 120,000 acre-feet a year that would meet the county’s water needs.
By contrast, the report states that the US Bureau of Reclamation forecasts Lake Powell to be at 29% of capacity by the end of September 2021, the lowest level since the reservoir first started filling in 1963.
Critics argue that the Colorado River— the source of water for Lake Powell — is already overallocated and an extended drought in the West threatens the water supply of 35 million people who depend on the river.
The proposed Lake Powell pipeline project “is an unacceptable step backwards. Massive and expensive water projects that service a tiny fraction of people in Utah don’t make sense,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers. “We’re called now to be honest with ourselves about the realities of water availability in the face of climate change.”
The report notes that municipal water use in Washington County is 300 gallons per-capita, more than double compared to Tucson, Albuquerque and El Paso and is more than 40% higher than per capita use in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
“Communities across the western U.S. from Tucson to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Denver have found effective ways to adapt urban landscapes to local climate conditions and available water supplies,” the report reads. “All of these communities have thriving landscapes, multiple-golf courses, and millions of visitors each year. All of these communities use substantially less water per capita than Washington County.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority serves nearly 2.3 million and spends $7.00 per capita on conservation efforts, by contrast the Washington County water district serves about 153,000 and spends less than $4.00 per capita on conservation.
A 1% annual per capita reduction in water use for Washington County is achievable if water efficiency programs are “significantly revamped and improved,” according to the report.
However, the Washington County Water Conservancy District says the document “is essentially the same report” the Western Resource Advocates pushed in 2019 with “some updated data,” which the agency rebuked in a 77-page document.
A spokeswoman for the agency said they were reviewing the updated report and plan to respond in more detail at some point, but said based on preliminary overview, the “Local Waters Alternative” could not replace the need for the pipeline to meet water demands.
“Sole reliance on the Virgin River would actually increase risks to Washington County’s water supply because it forces our community to use a source that is significantly impacted by climate change,” said spokeswoman Karry Rathje, on behalf of the agency.
Charging higher rates on excessive water use would also lower water demand, the report says. Comparing monthly water bills for customers, the analysis found that Washington County water users pay significantly less for high levels of use compared to other parts of the southwest.
For example, a home in St. George, Utah using 40,000 gallons could expect a water bill of less than $100. The exact same use in Las Vegas would cost about $154, and a customer in El Paso, TX would pay about $365, according to the report’s analysis.
Using a local water supply “is less vulnerable, more robust, and more resilient than the expensive and highly uncertain Lake Powell Pipeline,” the report states.
“If Washington County can adapt its water use patterns over the next 50 years to be similar to those in Grand Junction or Salt Lake City or Colorado Springs, then the volume of supply provided from the Virgin River and other local resources will be more than sufficient to meet the future population,” the report said.
If the Lake Powell project moves forward, it could face substantial financial, legal, and political risks by virtue of having the most recent – and most junior – withdrawal rights on the river, the report warns, adding that the estimated $2 billion cost for the project will result in impact fees, water sales, and property taxes paid by current and future Washington County residents.
But the Washington County Water Conservancy District says “claims that the Lake Powell Pipeline threatens the water rights of other Colorado River users, including other states and tribes, demonstrates misunderstanding of Colorado River law,” adding that Utah would not infringe on the water rights of other Colorado River users.