SALT LAKE CITY — The water supply manager for southwest Utah says the parched conditions over the past year underscore the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline as the region looks to shore up its water resources in the future.
“I don’t remember conditions this bad in my 30-year history as a water manager,” said Ron Thompson, general manager of Washington County Water Conservancy District. “Things would look much better if we had the Lake Powell Pipeline to supplement and diversify our water supplies.”
The snowpack accumulation season has spelled a tale of two winters — with snowpack in some regions hitting more than 150 percent of average in the high mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, while dry conditions persist in California, Arizona, New Mexico and southern Utah.
In March, for example, precipitation in southwest Utah was just 34 percent of average, while it was at 122 percent of average on the Bear River Basin.
“High snowpack levels in the Upper Basin will increase downstream flows in the Colorado River and water levels at Lake Powell, illustrating the water supply diversity that could be provided by the Lake Powell Pipeline,” said Eric Millis, director of Utah Division of Water Resources. “The pipeline makes it possible for surpluses on the Colorado River to compensate for drastic shortages in the Virgin River during extreme years such as this one.”
The outlook for the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers is grim.
The final runoff volume numbers forecasted for this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are 21 percent for the Santa Clara, 20 percent for the Virgin at the Hurricane measuring station and just 17 percent for the Virgin River at Littlefield.
Thompson said the low numbers will not equate to culinary water shortages, but residents need to do what they can to conserve water.
“The less we use this year, the more we have for the future,” said Thompson. “And we need the water.”
The agricultural community will not be as lucky, he added. Cutbacks are already being discussed among farmers, and those who plant grains, for example, will limit themselves to one planting, Thompson said. Ultimately how those cuts play out through the summer are in the hands of individual irrigation or canal companies.
The Lake Powell Pipeline, a state water development project approved by the Utah Legislature, would convey 86,249 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir in Hurricane.
State water resource managers say the $1 billion, 138-mile pipeline would allow Utah to tap into its unused appropriation of Colorado River before it flows downstream to Nevada and California.
Construction on the pipeline has not started. It remains in the environmental review process under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is licensing the project because of its hydropower components.
Thompson said the pipeline will allow the district to make use of water when snowpack numbers in the Upper Colorado River Basin end the water year on a generous note.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service points out that for the second consecutive month, many snow telemetry or SNOTEL sites in Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Idaho, Washington and Oregon received two to three times the normal amount of precipitation.
Pipeline critics say the project is a financial boondoggle that will saddle residents with a costly future. They assert Washington County has ample water to see it into the future if it would institute more aggressive conservation practices and water pricing more reflective of an arid, desert climate.
Thompson disputes that assertion.
"Conservation is important, but frankly it will not solve the problem, and it is not cheap," he said. "You can't solve Utah's long term water needs by conservation alone, regardless of what some people think."
Lake Powell, too, can't be turned to a reliable water source in the future, critics argue.
Numbers by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the inflow rate into Lake Powell was above average for only three of the past 14 years. The period from 2000 to 2013 is the lowest 14-year period since 1963, and, at the beginning of this water year, in 2014, reservoir storage was down 4 million acre-feet over the same time in 2013.
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