Lake Powell Pipeline: Albatross or golden goose?

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Mike Matheson water skis in the early morning hours on Lake Powell, Utah, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010. The $1.2 billion Lake Powell Pipeline as envisioned would run 139 miles from Lake Powell to St. George, and deliver water to some communities in Southern Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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ST. GEORGE  — The promise of drought is a loud roar from the meager waters of the Virgin River, flowing on an April Sunday afternoon at less than half its usual size.

The Virgin River, cool and alluring in the 81-degree heat, is nevertheless just a whisper of itself in early April along the Virgin River Walkway, where joggers, moms and children, and biking enthusiasts are enjoying the trail.

"It's running extremely low. There's not going to be much of a spring runoff in the basin," said Ron Thompson, whose job it is to supply water to Washington County. "There's no question we're in a drought cycle."

System-wide, the flows of the Colorado River are running this year at their third-driest since 1965. At 33 percent of average, the paltry amount of water is still more than the nearly bone-dry figure of 16 percent of average in 2002, the year described in biblical disaster terms by those in the Colorado basins.

The Virgin River, says Thompson, is nearly tapped out, with its water already serving the demands of 85 percent of Washington County: farmers and ranchers in La Verkin irrigating fields and pastures, St. George moms and dads plowing through another load of laundry or tourists washing desert dust off their trucks in Hurricane.

Washington County's reservoirs today are full thanks to last year's near-record precipitation, and Thompson said the area should be able to endure the hot months ahead without a problem.

But it is the dual threat of future drought years and population growth that makes Thompson's eyes crease with worry and his attention fix passionately on what he says will be Washington County's salvation — the Lake Powell Pipeline.

"Society can't ever grow beyond its water supply," he said. "The challenge over the next two or three decades will be how to keep a water supply in front of this growing population."

Thompson is a big man, a plain talker with a law degree who once put his pragmatism to work while serving as Washington County Attorney.

He said he understands the pipeline has its critics, but he said their opposition is not grounded in realism.

"We've never built a project where we haven't had critics all over us saying 'don't build it, we don't need it,'" he said. "I am always troubled by these extremist groups who are not necessarily constrained by the truth, but I understand it."

Pipeline critics come from a variety of corners, however, including the taxpayers association in Kane County, residents who say growth should be constrained and former high-ranking Utah politicians who have questions about its funding.

"The Lake Powell Pipeline may be the worst project ever conceived in the state of Utah and possibly the nation," said Paul Van Dam, a former Utah attorney general who now lives in Washington County. "For any project to succeed, the possibility must exist that it can be paid for."

Van Dam submitted those comments to federal regulators reviewing study proposals of the project, along with scores of others who are working to scuttle the pipeline.

Instead of taking water from Lake Powell for a project he describes as a "pipe dream," Van Dam said residents would be better served if the district found ways to curtail consumption through an effective conservation plan and turned to agricultural water and reuse as options. Critics also say water rates should be restructured so people aren't so wasteful of a cheap resource.

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