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Stace Hall, Deseret News
The Virgin River is running low in Washington County, photo taken Tuesday, March 23, 2015.
If we want to stop the economy of this state, turn off the water. I don't care if it is in Davis County, Daggett County or in Washington County, people need water. —Tom Hatch

ST. GEORGE — Southwest Utah is about to finish its fourth year sitting at about half the water it usually sees fall as snow in its mountains.

It has been a dramatic and scary decline from 2011, when snowpack sat at more than twice the average, a whopping 213 percent.

"It has not been a good four years for them," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. "There have been poor hydrologic conditions for them for quite some time."

During a conference two weeks ago on water issues in St. George, McInerney surveyed the situation first hand, peering into the Virgin River from atop a bridge at the southern edges of the town.

"It was so dry you could almost jump across it," he said.

The entire state is in a bad way when it comes to this year's snowpack — hovering on average in the 60 percent range — but nowhere more than Utah's Dixie is the availability of water a pressing, and contentious issue.

In 2006, Utah lawmakers feared the skyrocketing population growth in Washington County would exhaust available water supplies in about 15 years, so an alternative source needed to be developed.

With only one dissenting vote, the political body approved the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act and authorized state water officials to begin planning for a 139-mile pipeline.

At the time, the sponsor of the legislation, then-Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, said it was imperative that the pipeline be built or the area face shortages.

"If we want to stop the economy of this state, turn off the water," he warned his colleagues on the House floor. "I don't care if it is in Davis County, Daggett County or in Washington County, people need water."

The preparation for the pipeline took on new significance this year with the passage of a law establishing a new water infrastructure fund with a one-time deposit of $5 million. The fund is to also help facilitate the Bear River Development project for the Wasatch Front.

At Lake Powell, the pipeline would divert up to 86,000 acre-feet of water from Utah's unused portion of the Colorado River for delivery to Kane and Washington counties. An acre-foot of water describes the amount of water it would take to cover an acre, one-foot deep, or about enough water to supply an average family of four for a year depending on conservation efforts.

State water officials say the Colorado River water represents the most "firm" or reliable source of "new" water for the state and is critical in the context of a population that is expected to double by 2050.

Although still in the study phase — there are 23 probes covering environmental and cultural components of the project — the $1.2 billion project has stoked opposition from multiple groups.

Dissenting voices

Organizations such as the Utah Rivers Council, Citizens for Dixie's Future and Western Resource Advocates believe Washington County can fix what they say are wasteful water practices and meet its needs through conservation, more reuse of water and conversion of agricultural water to municipal use.

Other options such as more aggressive pricing of water based on use, landscaping requirements and a more thorough understanding of where and how water is used will allow Utah's Dixie to meet its future water needs at a fraction of the cost, they argue.

The "Local Waters Alternative" was submitted as a solution for Washington County's water needs to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by Western Resource Advocates.

Under this scenario, Washington County could ultimately conserve 42,500 acre-feet of water, or two thirds of what would be supplied via the pipeline, by 2060, and at about the third of the cost, it states.

The plan envisions that by 2060, residential indoor household use would be 35 gallons per capita per day and outside use would be tapped at 55 gallons per capita per day, with 600 square feet of turf or plants.

For comparison, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, each person now uses between 80 to 100 gallons per day, and a full bathtub is about 36 gallons. Depending on the dishwasher, water use in those appliances is about 20 gallons per load.

Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, has repeatedly said the area cannot meet its water needs simply through conservation.

"This project will help take us to 2060. If the state is going to double its population, we will not be able to meet that demand with conservation alone," Thompson said.

Current water use

The district says that Washington County residences use about 120 gallons of water per capita per day but when commercial, industrial and institutional uses are added in, the number equates to about 270 gallons per capita per day.

An analysis released last year by the U.S. Geological Survey underscored the strides made in conservation by pointing to domestic water use that had dropped to levels not seen since 1970, in large part because of more efficient use of water.

Thompson said his district has already hit the statewide conservation goal of shaving use by 25 percent and is working on reducing water consumption even more.

Beyond conservation, suppliers need to shore up availability of water resources by diversifying the supply, especially with drought, said Eric Milles, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

"One very important thing this project does for southern Utah is that it adds water supply diversity," he said. Last year, when the Virgin River area was sitting at about 39 percent of normal for its snowpack in the early spring, the Colorado River was at flows that were normal because of how the winter storms hit geographically.

"Having that backup supply is important," he said. "Right now, Washington County is relying solely on the Virgin River."

But critics say the area still needs to do more.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, has long argued that Utah does not have a water scarcity problem, but a water management problem.

His group has pushed for, and got the Utah Legislative Auditor General's Office to agree to conduct an audit on growth projections behind water needs touted by districts, examining more closely how "water budgets" are crafted. That audit is due out within the next several weeks.

Milles said he believes the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Development project will stand up under scrutiny because of the level of analysis that has already been done.

"'I think they will be fine."

St. George Mayor Jon Pike said he believes a lot of the most effective water conservation strategies have already been implemented and more aggressive policies — albeit painful ones — are in store for the future.

"Certainly the time is ripe for it now. We have had unprecedented growth over the last couple of decades and with the drought, we are starting to think about it in a way that has not hit the radar screen."

Water pricing

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has asked for a statewide water rates study to determine if property tax subsidies need to be reformed and if a fresh approach is needed — especially in the context of a changing climate and population

The conservancy district cannot set the actual municipal water rates, but it does require its retail customers to implement conservation pricing per the amount used.

"The more you use, the more you pay," said Karry Rathje, spokeswoman for the district.

In addition, the district requires landscaping ordinances be passed by its municipal users, but it can't dictate the terms.

Impact fees for new development are at a set rate for lots up to 10,000 square feet, and conservation pricing goes into effect if outdoor watering use is limited. For lots that have no outdoor use of culinary water, the price drops to roughly half.

The golf courses, parks, cemeteries and school yards are on systems that use reused water, and Thompson said he would like to see more education aimed at residential outdoor watering use.

"I've seen people watering three or four times a week when once would do."

Pike said nearly every new development is xeriscaped, but he cautions that the "no-trees no turf" mindset leads to urban heat islands, in which exposed surfaces such as pavement or roofs can reach temperatures anywhere from 50 to 90 degrees hotter than the air. Such conditions drive up energy costs, cause more ground-level ozone and reduced air quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nothing is certain when it comes to the pipeline, or what future water delivery holds for Washington County.

Political will

The Lake Powell Pipeline, if it is approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, would not begin construction until 2018. There is the matter of financing, and reaching deep into the well of political will to gain support.

Milles said its delivery of water would come in stages, and its users would pay the costs back to the state over time.

The arrangement is not unlike what existed for the early storage reservoirs and dams funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the West, with partners like the conservation districts repaying the costs long-term for projects like East Canyon and Willard Bay. Some lawmakers have questioned the state footing the bill for a project focused only on Washington County, but Milles argues that water development projects for specific areas are nothing new.

Thompson said when the county's Quail Creek Reservoir was being planned in the 1980s, there was opposition then.

The reservoir was built with a $30 million general obligation bond when the tax base was $100 million. The Lake Powell Pipeline at a cost of $1.2 billion is being envisioned with a current tax base of $15 billion.

Pike, who moved to St. George 20 years ago this summer, said if not for Quail Creek, the area would not have supported the growth that has occurred and the ability to support a transplant like him.

"To me there is some comfort in that. And if we even want the ability for our kids and grandkids to live here, we need to both conserve our way there and seek additional water sources. "

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