Romney warns St. George development could stop without better water conservation

Utah’s senator also warned that the planned Lake Powell pipeline might not make sense without broader agreements.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mitt Romney, right, visits with Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager Zach Renstrom during a tour of Southern Utah on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

La Verkin • Drought could dry up development in St. George and other areas without some significant changes in the use and conservation of water, Sen. Mitt Romney warned during his visit Tuesday with water officials in Washington County.

Washington County’s population is expected to more than double over the next 40 years — from 182,000 to nearly 465,000. The county’s current water supply is woefully inadequate to keep pace.

“We’re going to have to make some fairly significant adjustments in the way we live our lives in the American West or we are going to find ourselves running out of water,” Romney said.

Amid the stench of sulfur at La Verkin Hot Springs, about 20 miles east of St. George, Romney and Zach Renstrom, executive director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, examined one possible change — desalinating water in the springs the district owns on the Virgin River. The move could theoretically create as much as 8,000 acre-feet — roughly 2.6 billion gallons — of additional drinking water per year.

“This is an opportunity for us to have a win-win where we desalt the river and find the opportunity to generate additional drinking water for Washington County,” said Brock Belnap, district assistant general manager.

Currently, the desalination proposal is in its preliminary stages. But district officials say if the Bureau of Reclamation signs off on the project, the technology exists to do it. The main drawbacks to desalination are the expense of paying for the electricity needed for salt removal and deciding what to do with the estimated two dump trucks full of salt that would be extracted from the springs each day.

“I really hope we could refine it and turn it into something of value rather than stick it in a landfill,” Renstrom said.

Romney can’t help with the technical challenges, but he does have a role in securing federal dollars for Utah. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act President Biden signed into law last November contains money for water projects.

“But it doesn’t specify which project is going to get which money,” the senator said. “It’s incumbent on me and my team, as well as on other members of the Utah congressional delegation, to support our communities in their various projects to make sure that Utah gets its fair share — if not more than its fair share — of those dollars.”

Other possible projects federal dollars could fund include the installation of a regionwide water reuse system and the construction of a dam in Warner Valley between Washington City and Hurricane to store secondary water.

Every drop of water the county can secure or conserve counts.

In 2020, the district delivered 32,000 acre-feet of water, about 87% of its 36,659 acre-feet yearly supply. The county’s total yearly water supply, from district and municipal sources and upcoming local projects, is estimated at 100,000 acre-feet.

But the demand for water is projected to jump to 176,000 acre-feet by 2070.

Some of that demand can be offset by better water conservation. Washington County’s per capita water use has dropped 30 percent — from 439 to 285 gallons per day — since 2000, according to Utah’s Open Water Data Portal.

In addition, the county and cities in the district recently enacted stringent ordinances that cut the amount of grass allowed on new developments, limited water use at car washes and golf courses and required water-wise landscaping, which the district projects will save an estimated 11 billion gallons per year.

“You take conservation as far as you possibly can, and if that gets you as far as you need to go, great,” Romney said. “If it doesn’t, you have to look aggressively at more extreme options that require a lot more money.”

One option is the proposed Lake Powell pipeline. If it is built, the 140-mile pipeline would carry 83,756 acre-feet a year, more than 27 billion gallons, from Lake Powell to Washington County. But Romney said with water levels so low in the reservoir and Colorado River, the pipeline won’t provide an immediate cure for the county’s water woes.

“There is going to have to be an agreement reached between the states — Upper Basin and Lower [Colorado River] Basin states — that decide who is going to get how much water and who cuts back during a drought,” Romney said. “If that’s resolved … the pipeline may make sense. If it’s not, it won’t.”

The Bureau of Reclamation gave the seven states in the Colorado River Basin, which includes Utah, until Aug. 15 to work together to present an emergency plan that would cut between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water, 16 % to 32% of current use. Since that deadline has expired, the bureau is poised to impose cuts of its own.

Romney said the states would be better served to find a reasonable compromise on water cuts rather than leave that decision to Washington bureaucrats.

“I’m sure the [Bureau of Reclamation] are fine folks and consider themselves apolitical, but they ultimately report to the president,” he said. “If you have a Democrat for president, the bureau might lean a little in that direction. If you have a Republican president, it would lean in our direction. Rather than have a political slant to the decision of who gets how much water, it would be better for the states to come together and make a decision on their own.”

Roughly 40 million people in seven states rely on water from the Colorado River. Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico make up the Upper Basin States. Arizona, California and Nevada are in the Lower Basin.