A coalition of governors’ representatives from states that rely on the Colorado River sent a letter to the secretary of the interior, pushing back on a proposal to build the Lake Powell Pipeline in Utah.
The representatives of the Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming are asking the secretary to restrain from signing the final environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision (ROD) until “they reach a consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns” regarding the project.
The coalition cites under previous presidential administrations, they “have cultivated cooperative relationships” of issues each state faces regarding sustainable river operations. The group has worked under the 1922 and 1948 compacts preserving each state’s water rights and diverting water “raises significant questions.”
“Remarkably, this consensus and collaboration has occurred—successfully—during a time of unprecedented, supply-shrinking, multi-decade drought, and massive population growth in the Colorado River Basin. Together we have accomplished things once highly thought improbable, if not impossible, all to the benefit of those who rely on the Colorado River,” the letter states.
The group warns if they are compelled to address the Lake Powell Pipeline process rather than working through the compacts previously established, the prospects of “multi-year litigation” remain high.
While the group did not say it is opposed to the pipeline, it hopes to act in good faith “to identify consensus solutions” on the Lake Powell Pipeline rather than litigation or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“Secretary [David] Bernhardt should listen to the six Colorado River states that just asked him to delay any decision regarding Utah’s unnecessary and harmful proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. All six states, especially Arizona, would be hurt by Utah’s attempted water grab from the drought-stricken Colorado River,” Douglas Wolf, senior attorney at Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release.
The governors’ representatives join several environmental and recreational groups submitting comments in opposition to the Lake Powell Pipeline to the Provo Office of the Bureau of Reclamation.
In a joint letter sent to the bureau, Utah Rivers Council, environmental groups and water boards stated the EIS by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) had several deficiencies including “purpose and need,” socioeconomics, climate change, endangered species, “and a number of other legal issues.”
This issue cited by the letter includes the BOR’s recognition in 1982 regarding the Carter Creek Canal enlargement project. The agency recognized, “the fact that presently undeveloped water rights in Utah to appropriate waters tributary to the Colorado River system far exceed Utah’s entitlement of the Colorado River system,” the letter cited.
Additionally, the letter cited the BOR’s 2012 study titled, Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, which stated the river was over-taxed, and management strategies would need to be implemented on communities reliant on the river. The study resulted in the basin states drafting drought contingency plans, which emphasized reducing water use.
Lastly, in their letter, the group states the BOR did not adequately consider the existence of a “megadrought” and the limitations of the Colorado River, the current drought contingency plans, and the mandatory cuts being implemented in lower basin states.
“Given all of these uses, the Provo Office did also not consider the very likely possibility that Colorado River water proves to be an unreliable water source for the Lake Powell Pipeline, and residents of Washington County would be forced to make debt payments through largely increased water rates, impact fees and property taxes for the construction costs of the project, yet receive no water for their payments,” the letter concludes.
The Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority sent a separate letter asking authorities in Utah to do more for water conservation before constructing the pipeline, stating what they view as extreme conservation measures are “commonly applied in an efficient and effective manner in many other communities.” The authority also expressed concern the pipeline would further deplete water to Lake Mead, which has been half-full for several years.
“This project is water hoarding at its finest,” said Jen Pelz, the wild rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians. “Utah wants to cash in on its ‘water entitlement’ under the Colorado River Compact so badly that it is willing to upset the fragile balance of a basin that supports 40 million people, recreational and agricultural economies, tribal lands and cultures, and irreplaceable landscapes and ecosystems.”
The pipeline project
The Lake Powell Pipeline project would move up to 82,249 acre-feet per year of water from Lake Powell through northern Arizona and southern Utah to Sand Hollow Reservoir to be used by St. George, UT.
“The project would use 5 percent of Utah’s Colorado River compact allocation and is critical to meeting the needs of southern Utah by enhancing the reliability of Washington County’s water system. Without the project, the economic viability and water security of one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States will be harmed,” said Utah Division of Water Resources Director Todd Adams in a press release.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported St. George has one of the highest per-capita water consumption rates in the area with 300 gallons per-person usage. A Utah Division of Water Resources conservation plan proposes Washington County cut its water usage by 14 percent to 262 gallons by 2030. The amount of water consumed in the county is higher than in other cities in the southwestern part of the state.
The Tribune also writes the state has spent 10 years and $30 million on environmental and engineering studies, changing the project’s scope several times. The original project included Iron and Kane counties and hydroelectric projects, but Washington County is the only project component.
According to estimates prepared by Stantec, a consultant, the project is estimated to cost between $1.8-2.4 billion, including financing costs. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor