Lake Powell Pipeline: Albatross or golden goose?

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 6:34 p.m. MDT

Growing out of water?

It was six years ago that the Utah Legislature approved the Lake Powell Pipeline as a state project, hefting it to the priority list for funding a new water source for Kane, Washington and Iron counties.

St. George, in particular, was growing like non-native weeds out of control. For a one- year period from 2005 to 2006, the St. George metro area was the fastest growing in the country, according to the U.S. Census. The following year it ranked second, with 70 percent of the growth attributed to newcomers.

By 2008, state and county water resources managers were submitting a proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a pipeline from Lake Powell to ferry water to Kane, Washington and Iron counties. It would be a hydro-power project to generate electricity to be added to the power grid.

Then, the economic tempest hit, pushing families into bankruptcy, into the unemployment lines and out of their homes. St. George, Utah's golden girl of growth, wasn't immune, and neither was the state budget.

Eric Millis, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resource, figures the recession  threw plans for the pipeline into a three-year delay, but the economic crisis has not erased any of Thompson's doggedness in his pursuit of the pipeline, or that of other supporters.

Thompson and others with state water resources believe even with the slowdown in growth, the pipeline will be needed in the next 15 to 20 years. The Governor's Office of Planning and Budget is slated to release new population projections in July, but Thompson said he already sees evidence of the growth returning.

"We are clearly moving out of the recession," he said. "Our revenue from impact fees is 50 percent higher this year than it was last year at this time."

Water supplies

Rep. Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, said his colleagues at Capitol Hill need to get serious about ensuring the adequacy of future water supplies by putting money toward paying for new water projects.

He rejects the notion that sales tax revenue collected from the state as a whole should not pay for a project specific to southern Utah.

"The St. George project is no different than anything else that has been built along the Wasatch Front," said Rep. Patrick Painter, adding that the state water development fund has used money to pay for projects all over the state, regardless of where the taxes originated.

"Our whole history is built around the ability to move water around, develop it. Our whole history of our ability to survive here in this desert climate is based on being able, being willing to do that," Painter said.

Painter said it is folly to let 86,000 acre-feet of water slip past Utah, down the Colorado on into Nevada and California.

"It's just moving right on past us," he said. "That water is not doing the citizens of this state any good at all," but instead boosting water supplies downstream in Nevada and California.

Figures bear that out. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shows that increased use of the Colorado River in the lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona was at 21 percent from 1971 to 1999, compared to a 10 percent increase by the upper basin states of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. When annual flows to the lower basins surpassed 7.5 million acre-feet, the bureau noted it was years when "surplus" water was traveling downstream.

In the meantime, Thompson said Washington County is running out of water; it has 72,000 acre-feet already developed, but will need more than twice that — 174,000 acre-feet — by 2038. By 2025, he said, Washington County will have its back against the wall, with demand exceeding supply. 

"That is what I think you will see," Thompson said. "We either need to figure out how to develop additional water supplies or figure out how to close the door."

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