Kane County does an about-face, pulls out of Lake Powell pipeline project

(John Antczak | The Associated Press) This Sept. 11, 2019 photo shows an aerial view of Lake Powell on the Colorado River along the Arizona-Utah border. Kane County just announced that it is pulling out of the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.

For the past decade, Kane County leaders have argued that their southern Utah community will need water piped from the Colorado River to meet future needs, but the local water district abruptly announced Thursday it was pulling out of the costly Lake Powell pipeline project, leaving Washington County as the only remaining recipient of the water.

The controversial project would divert 86,000 acre-feet of water a year from the chronically depleted Lake Powell into a 143-mile pipeline terminating in a reservoir near St. George. Along the way, the billion-dollar pipeline was to offload 4,000 acre-feet in Johnson Canyon east of Kanab.

But now the Kane County Water Conservancy District has decided it didn’t have a “foreseeable need” for the water after reviewing the county’s projected population growth and available water resources, according to a release posted Thursday.

"We continue to support the Lake Powell pipeline and consider it absolutely essential to the future of southwestern Utah,” said Mike Noel, the district’s general manager and the retired Kanab state lawmaker who has long championed the project.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, and other critics have long pointed to Kane County’s ample groundwater supplies as evidence that there was not much need for the project, which would be financed by Utah taxpayers and tap an already over-allocated Colorado River. More than $25 million has been spent on environmental reviews, with a new one underway by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which assumed federal oversight of the project after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission withdrew.

Kane’s pullout eliminates the need to construct a 10-mile pipe to direct the county’s share of the water to a spot hardly a mile from Noel’s extensive ranch properties in Johnson Canyon.

The project has shrunk substantially from its original version, first unveiled in 2006 legislation. Last year, the Utah Division of Water Resources removed the hydroelectric generation components, which would have enlarged the project’s costs and environmental footprint. Iron County, another original participant, exited years ago, citing the high cost of delivering the water all the way to Cedar City.

But state officials, pointing to the mushrooming growth in and around St. George, maintained there is still a need for the pipeline.

“Washington County is the fastest growing and one of the driest regions in Utah,” said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. “The county is projected to triple in the next 40 years and is currently dependent on a single river basin that is almost fully developed. A second, reliable water source is vital for Washington County’s growing population and economy.”

The project’s timeline and process remain unaltered. The Bureau of Reclamation’s review is ongoing with a draft environmental impact statement anticipated for public comment this summer.