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Aaron Thorup, Utah Division of Water Resources
Utah Division of Water Resources

SALT LAKE CITY — State officials filed a licensing application to federal regulators for the proposed Lake Powell pipeline, handing over thousands of pages of studies detailing the controversial project and its potential impacts.

The application submitted Monday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission includes more than 1,000 pages of comments and responses from the public or agencies such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs, plus required study reports.

It's anticipated it will take several months for federal regulators to review the volumes of information and then begin their own environmental analysis under a process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. The compilation of that document could take two years or more.

The 139-mile pipeline would divert 6 percent of Utah's allocation of Colorado River water that currently flows from the Green River into Flaming Gorge and ultimately on to Lake Powell, where it sits untapped for development.

Critics of the pipeline and those working to protect the Colorado River say the West's most "overworked" river can no longer sustain such withdrawals, and in the face of drought and climate change, it would be reckless to take more water out of the system and bank on it for future use. Lake Powell struggles to fill and the proposal to take more water from it is foolhardy and jeopardizes downstream users, they argue.

The comments

"Please stop this disastrous pipeline project," Vicky Brandt wrote in comments submitted as part of the licensing process. "It would drain another 28 billion gallons of water out of the Colorado River annually, and the Colorado River is already stretched to the breaking point. Taking more water out of the river to subsidize growth and waste in Utah's desert is nonsensical."

The state Division of Water Resources and other supporters counter that climate change and unpredictability in future water supplies, in fact, are one of the most compelling arguments for the pipeline to be built.

"The Lake Powell pipeline project guards against drought and climate change; balances environmental water needs; allows agricultural conversion to occur organically; and pushes costly, technically difficult projects into the future," state officials said.

They rejected an alternative promoted by the Western Resources Advocates.

"The (alternative) requires Washington County be solely dependent on the Virgin River watershed and fails to address the vulnerabilities in the face of prolonged drought and climate change that come with having all sources in one watershed. The only protection against drought mentioned in the report is potential temporary agricultural water leases. This minimal supply would also come from the Virgin River, and during recent drought years, agricultural users have been hit the hardest."

State officials said the Virgin River watershed will be tapped out by 2028 without the pipeline — an assertion critics say is a scare tactic.

While demand is projected to be near 81,273 acre-feet of water by that year, the Washington County Water Conservancy District said available supplies will be at 67,677-acre feet.

Critics said the district could be doing more to conserve water and tap into other potential sources such as conversion of agricultural supplies, tapping groundwater and reuse.

Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, has long contended the region cannot conserve its way out of the projected water shortages, and the state specifically pointed to these conservation initiatives carried in the region:

• Conversion of 1.35 million feet of open canals to pipelines, repairing leaking pipes, installing meters, developing two water conservation demonstration gardens.

• Performing more than 2,000 free irrigation audits.

• Launching a rebate program in 2005 and distributing nearly $1 million to local businesses and residents for water efficient irrigation systems, plumbing fixtures and commercial equipment.

Conservation gains

Washington County's per capita water use has dropped by 26 percent from 2000 to 2010, at the same time its largest city, St. George, experienced a nearly 53 percent jump in its population. The county aims to reduce consumption by 35 percent by 2060, a goal its critics say is tepid.

Multiple critics, too, wonder what kind of additional growth the $1 billion pipeline will foster and what kind of pressure that growth puts on the area's resources.

Avery Champion wrote that he plans to retire in the Kanab area, but that will be impossible if the pipeline brings an increase in water rates.

"If too many people want to overdevelop parts of southern Utah, then finding and paying for water should be their problem, and done at their expense and their expense alone. Please do not burden the already fairly low-income inhabitants of Kane County with this ludicrous, unnecessary project," Champion wrote.

But Richard Kohler, who described himself in his comments as an architect and an environmentalist, wrote that he remains in favor of the pipeline, despite critics who try to change his mind by bringing up drought or climate change.

"At the heart of my most heated arguments with them, I assert that climate change is a major reason to construct the (pipeline) and not to oppose it. The likelihood of less snowpack and more monsoon rainfall supports diverting less than 1 percent of the Lake Powell water that is discharged to the lower basin states annually," he wrote.

People can research components of the project and see the state's application at the commission's eLibrary website.

The docket number for the the pipeline is P-12966.

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