In major move, Utah pulls most hydropower out of Lake Powell pipeline

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Glen Canyon Dam that created Lake Powell.

Utah’s proposed Lake Powell pipeline will cost less to build and be easier to permit under a decision announced Wednesday to cut major hydropower components from the controversial project that would move 86,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to St. George.

At the same time, the Utah Division of Water Resources withdrew its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which Utah had requested be the sole permitting agency on the project.

The division’s new plan for the 142-mile pipeline excludes two reservoirs, proposed for the top and bottom of Hurricane Cliffs, that were to help generate hydropower at times of peak demand. The reservoirs’ removal is expected to lower the tab by about $100 million.

At the same time, however, this power was to have created a revenue stream that would help defray some of the project’s costs, estimated at between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion.

“The primary purpose of the LPP is to diversify and increase the water supply for 13 communities in southwestern Utah," division director, Eric Millis, said Wednesday. “Focusing on the water-delivery portion of the project streamlines the permitting process and helps move the project forward as efficiently as possible.”

Eliminating the reservoirs also will greatly reduce the project’s environmental impacts, according to Millis.

Still, his division has spent several million dollars on its FERC application, submitting thousands of pages of documents.

“If this is such a great move, why did they waste a second on the FERC application?” asked Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council and a leading opponent of the project. “This is such a waste of taxpayer money. Today’s announcement demonstrates incompetence at the highest level of the division. They are selling a dead end as a good thing. They wasted millions of dollars and 10 years.”

Millis contends the studies submitted to FERC will remain useful as the division pursues an environmental analysis under the U.S. Department of Interior.

“The bulk of that money was spent on study reports and resource studies trying to figure out what the impact of the project would be,” Millis said. “All of that information is still good and usable and will roll into the completion of the EIS,” or environmental impact statement.

Utah is seeking permits from three Interior agencies that oversee lands the pipeline will cross: Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation. Interior will name a lead agency soon but, for now, energy regulators are out of the picture after years of Utah trying to get FERC to handle the entire project.

FERC rejected Utah’s push that it be the lone permitting agency, reasoning that electrical generation was a peripheral part of the project.

Wednesday's development represents an important shift in how Utah has framed the pipeline.

“The water is necessary. The power was not necessary,” said Joel Williams, the water division’s assistant director. “It was something that makes sense to do if you’re having a long down-run pipeline that you could put hydro onto it. The real change came as we worked with some of the permitting agencies.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency had raised concerns about the project’s ecological footprint.

“These two reservoirs would have impacted several hundred acres of land above and below the cliffs. There were some dry washes that the Army Corps was concerned about. There was habitat for the threatened desert tortoise,” Williams added. The division explored reducing the size of the hydropower lakes and concluded that it was better to drop them while retaining the in-line power-generation features.

“That eliminates the need for a FERC license," Williams explained, “because we would no longer have that significant plant and the rest of this other smaller hydro would be permitted under a conduit exemption that would not require a FERC license.”

That exemption covers in-line hydro projects whose generating capacity is less than 40 megawatts.