That scenario, he said, is something for politicians to decide.
"Should we talk growth restraints? It is legitimate public policy, public debate, but it doesn't belong in the arena of a special service district," Thompson said.
Piping the future
The $1.2 billion pipeline as envisioned would run 139 miles from Lake Powell to St. George, with a segment that diverts 4,000 acre-feet of water to Kane County each year. That amount is enough for 12,300 people. Washington County would get 69,000 acre-feet of water a year, enough for 254,600 residents or 86,600 homes.
A pipeline was planned to head north 50 miles from St. George to deliver an additional 13,000 acre-feet of water, but Iron County officials are backing off the project, which would drop its overall costs by $300 million.
With Cedar City and Enoch on record as thanks-but-no-thanks to the pipeline, Iron County water district's general manager George Mason said it doesn't make financial sense for the district to plunge in, especially when its water situation is quite different than its neighbor to the south.
"Looking at it politically, the Lake Powell pipeline is pretty much a nonstarter for us," Mason said. "It's an extremely high price tag for the population here. The problem is how you pay for it."
Mason said that unlike Washington County, his district lacks a reservoir to receive the water and treatment plant to transform it into a drinking supply. On top of the estimated $300 million that would be the district's share for pipeline costs, Mason said it would probably take another $50 million to put in those necessary components.
If and when the pipeline is built is as fluid as the water it purports to carry and how many head gates of opposition its critics throw in the way, including litigation.
The Utah Legislature has considered state bonding as a way to pay for it, using a portion of the state sales tax growth and funneling money to the project via the state water loan fund.
Construction, slated to begin at the earliest in 2020, won't proceed until lawmakers sign off on the bill. An array of financing options will be studied this summer by the Utah Water Development Commission.
To its critics, the Lake Powell pipeline is a 139-mile, prohibitively expensive project to be constructed in ignorance of wasteful water practices of Washington County and on the backs of taxpayers statewide.
Like other critics, Van Dam insists that if built, the Lake Powell Pipeline will be an economic albatross for generations to come. Residents and developers should plan on high increases in water impact fees to repay the cost of the project, said Christi Nuffer with Citizens for Dixie's Future. She said it is a cost that has tripled since the plan's inception, with no corresponding increase in the repayment mechanism.
Like others, she emphasized that the county can meet its needs with conservation, but Thompson said it is not the cure-all.
From 1996 to 2010, the district spent $12.5 million on conservation, Thompson said, with efforts that include paying people to pull out turf, offering a free water-audit program to residents, imposing timed-watering restrictions in summer months and paying to replace inefficient toilets. It costs about $10,000 per every acre-foot saved with the toilet rebate program, Thompson said, about the same cost as the Lake Powell Pipeline.
"None of these programs were without significant cost," Thompson said.
Conservation, he said, is an ethic you build in people over time.
"We have better landscaping than we used to, a better educated public and more efficient appliances — all of those are helping. We are getting better all the time, but that alone won't get you there."
Thompson said he remembers the time when Washington County was a place where you grew up and left, not stayed and raised a family.
"It used to be you had to leave because there were no jobs — that's changed. But it is a daunting task to meet the challenges like aging infrastructure, population growth. And you can't just snap your fingers and water appears."
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