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Op-ed: If Lake Powell pipeline is built, will Colorado River provide?

First Published      Last Updated Nov 28 2015 08:12 pm

As the Utah Legislature gears up for the 2016 session, funding for a mammoth government project hangs over the heads of Utah taxpayers.

The Lake Powell Pipeline project, the largest new diversion of the Colorado River estimated to cost anywhere from $2 billion to $3 billion, would pump water 2,000 feet uphill, over 140 miles of Southern Utah desert to provide additional water to Washington County, which has one of the worst records of water waste in the West.

A team of 20 economists from universities around Utah just released a report finding repayment of the pipeline debt would increase impact fees by up to 138 percent, increase water rates by up to 678 percent and boost property taxes beyond any potential benefit of the project. But the biggest flaw in the Lake Powell Pipeline scheme is its reliance on one of the most unpredictable resources in the west: the Colorado River. By the time this massive project is constructed and operational, probably 20 years from now, Utah may not have much Colorado River water to pump.



The Colorado River is one of the most studied waterways on the planet. For the past 15 years, scientists from around the country have been modeling river flows and the impacts of climate change. Their verdict? Nearly every study concludes that warming temperatures and increasing demand will drastically reduce river flows, and the probability is very low that Lakes Powell and Mead will ever fill again. Studies from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Stanford University, the U.S. Forest Service and even the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have all concluded that there is already a massive structural water deficit on the river.

This year, Lake Mead dropped to its lowest level since it began filling in the 1930s. The total combined storage between Lake Powell and Lake Mead also dropped to its lowest level in history. What is often referred to as a drought in the Colorado River Basin should really be called a structural water shortage, because we're using more water than flows in the river. This means that we're heading towards a breaking point. It's expected that Arizona and Nevada will take cuts in their shares of the river in 2017, should Lake Mead's elevation be below 1,075 feet on January 1. From then on we can expect shortages to be the norm on the Colorado River.

Utah policy makers should work to reduce our state's risk from water shortages, not create a deeper deficit hole to fall into. We should pay close attention to what's happening in the lower Colorado River Basin, and think twice about committing to colossal infrastructure that increases our water risk. Not only would the Lake Powell Pipeline worsen the water deficit, but it could potentially compete with the water rights of the Central Utah Project, cities, agriculture and Native American tribes if a shortage declaration takes place in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Utah's mission to use every last drop of the state's water is myopic in the era of a system-wide supply and demand crisis. Instead of reducing our state's risks to water shortages, it will actually intensify it. Betting billions of state tax dollars to draw water from an over-allocated river is a bad gamble with our money. Instead of funneling cash to water lawns, resorts and golf courses in St. George, we should work towards serious conservation measures and stop wasteful water subsidies. Neighboring states have surpassed Utah's water efficiency by leaps and bounds – we can do more with what we have.

Eric Balken is a Utah native and the executive director of Glen Canyon Institute.

 

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