Washington County’s population is expanding rapidly, and there’s disagreement about how to keep that population hydrated.
According to Karry Rathje, the public information manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, most southern Utah residents are dependent on the Virgin River basin — “a single water source of variable quality and quantity.” This basin has been in a drought 12 of the last 20 years according to Rathje and Thompson, and is known to experience low streamflow.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District has proposed the Lake Powell Pipeline as a solution.
The Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act passed in the state legislature with 96 supporting votes and one opposing vote. The pipeline would tap into Utah’s share of the Colorado River by way of Lake Powell and pipe it to the Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County for storage.
Utah has a claim to Colorado River water through the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
But even with the burgeoning population, opponents such as Conserve Southwest Utah and the Utah Rivers Council claim Utah’s water needs are nowhere near dire enough to warrant the proposed pipeline.
Washington County water managers are concerned the population there is growing at a rate six times higher than the state average. Supporters of the pipeline may remind opponents of the project that Washington County has already met its 25 percent water reduction goal and is on track for a further 10 percent reduction.
St. George — the city to be most affected by the proposed pipeline — ranked 17th in the nation for population growth, at an annual rate of 2.5 percent, according to census information released in March.
But Jane Whalen, a board member for Conserve Southwest Utah, said the city of St. George claims to have enough water for triple its current population.
The project’s cost
Though the pipeline was approved for planning by the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act of 2006, the process of creating estimates is still in its early stages. The various approaches for the pipeline’s proposed alignment could affect the cost dramatically.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District originally estimated the pipeline would cost nearly $970 million.
The cost analysis has already come under scrutiny.
“They want to develop these projects really fast before the Department of Interior comes in and says ‘your allocation has been reduced,’” Whalen said, describing what she sees as an effort by the Washington County Water Conservancy District to complete the project before a complete analysis of the costs is finished.
In September, 17 economists from various universities in Utah examined the district’s pipeline financing and repayment plan. According to their analysis, the Lake Powell Pipeline would cost between $1.3 billion and $1.75 billion.
According to the economists’ analysis, the Washington County Water Conservancy District plans to pay for only about 28 percent of the cost, leaving taxpayers to cover the rest. The result, according to the economists, would be a 576–678 percent increase in water rates, and a 138 percent increase in impact fees.
“That’s $780 dollars of debt for every man, woman and child, (in Washington County) for the next seven years,” said Nick Schou of the Utah Rivers Council.
Rathje said a consultant to the district conducted a focus group and asked public opinion about the pipeline project and repayment options. She said the people who will make the final decision on the pipeline did not participate in the focus group.
She said the numbers referenced in the study from the economists from various universities in Utah “claim to be from the interactive focus group exercise,” but the numbers they used did not include numbers from the focus group.
Rathje said the Utah Rivers Council and the university professors misrepresented the results of the focus group and mistakenly labeled it as a “district repayment plan” or “WCWCD model.”
“Both of which are inaccurate descriptions,” Rathje said in an email.
She said the Washington County Water Conservancy District does not have a repayment plan because of the “preliminary status of the project.” She said the federally required environmental process must be completed before the final cost and design are determined. Only then will the cost be discussed. She said the district will share a payment plan with the public “before a decision is made to build the project.”
In response to the study, the Washington County Water Conservancy District General Manager Ron Thompson sent a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert; Utah State Senate President Wayne L. Niederhauser, R-Salt Lake; and Utah House Speaker Gregory H. Hughes, R-Draper. The letter states the following:
- The district will repay the costs of the Lake Powell Pipeline.
- The anticipated cost of $969 million didn’t take into account the portion of the cost the Kane County Water Conservancy District, which would share in the cost and benefit of this project, would cover.
- The economists underestimated how much residents pay for water usage, thus inflating the increase in cost per resident.
In Thompson’s letter, he said the plan will be available for public review “once all the essential components to create that plan are known,” which he said must be approved by the state and accepted by the districts.
Price and demand
Advocates for increased water conservation argue the substantial subsidy on water prices keeps the market price for water at an artificially low rate, encouraging consumers to use more of it.
A letter published by the economists said the district’s cost estimate “assumes there is no such link, and that instead, the price of water has no relationship to the quantity of water used or purchased by the consumer.”
But Thompson’s letter said the calculation of the “law of demand” assumes water demand decreases 5 percent for every 10 percent increase in price.
“This formula leads to the insupportable claim that water demand in Washington County would be 8 percent lower than it was in 2010 despite a population increase of more than 250 percent,” Thompson said in the letter.
The issue of water resource allocation has been particularly divisive in St. George, according to Schou, where the decision of whether to proceed with continued development generally falls along party lines.
Democrats in St. George are generally against the pipeline, while Republicans have generally been in favor of it.
The issue of cost and the role of government in water rights has been a point of contention.
“One increasingly large constituency we work with is fiscal conservatives,” Schou said. “We work with duck hunters, tribes, taxpayer advocates, industries, as well as conservationists.”
He said organizing around the issue has been less a matter of politics and groups and more about appealing to specific constituencies.
Conserve Southwest Utah has suggested discouraging the watering of parks and public properties, recommending homeowners associations stop requiring lawns, and implementing measures to capture more rainwater.
According to the American Farmland Trust website, Utah loses approximately 30 acres of farmland per day. The Utah Rivers Council has suggested water no longer used for agriculture could be re-allocated for municipal use. Currently, 82 percent of Utah water goes to agricultural uses.
Another proposed option is the Bear River Diversion suggests a scenario, pulling 200,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River, the largest tributary of the Great Salt Lake. The result would have both an environmental and economic impact.
The Bear River is a part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. The watershed is home to more than 230 bird species, who migrate toward the Salt Lake in numbers often greater than anywhere else on earth.
A lower water level in the lake could mean the loss of that ecological asset. In addition, the loss of nearby wetlands would contribute to a greater degree of dust and particulate pollution, opponents say.