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.
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."
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."
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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