For several years, a poster has hung at Kanab’s City Hall, warning that Kane County would exhaust its existing water sources by 2020 without an infusion from the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.

The Kane County Water Conservancy District’s participation in that controversial water project would cost its customers alone at least $35 million. But the investment would pay for itself, district general manager Mike Noel has argued for nearly two decades, through the economic development and tourism revenues the water would support.

“The fact that we [the Kane water district] need this water project is absolutely true. It’s essential. It’s one of the most important projects in the state because of the growth that’s occurring in southern Utah,” Noel, then a Republican Utah House member, told a legislative panel in 2017. “Having this additional 4,000 acre-feet come in, that’s absolutely needed.”

With the arrival of 2020, however, the district has not run out of water. In fact, it now concedes its current groundwater sources could be sufficient to meet its needs as far out as 2060.

So, in a surprise about-face this month, Kane County “opted” to withdraw from the proposed $1 billion-plus pipeline across southern Utah and northern Arizona that would move 86,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water 140 miles, from Lake Powell, through Kane County, to fast-growing St. George.

This decision “was made after further review of [Kane] County’s projected population growth and available water supply, which indicated the county did not currently have a foreseeable need for the water,” said the April 16 announcement by the Utah Division of Water Resources, the pipeline’s sponsoring agency.

That’s a 180-degree reversal of what Noel, the pipeline’s leading cheerleader, and state water honchos have been asserting for two decades.

“Current water development projects underway in Kane County will only supply water until about 2020,” states the poster, which was produced by the state and put up at Kanab’s City Hall. “Even if current water availability is taken into account, as well as water conservation efforts, the Lake Powell pipeline will still be needed to ensure that Kane County residents will have access to an adequate water supply.”

To critics such as Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, that poster demonstrates that pipeline proponents have been misleading the public all along.

“You refuse to acknowledge the basis of our criticism. The project documents themselves demonstrate you don’t need the water,” Frankel told Noel at a district board meeting last week. “Participation in the Lake Powell pipeline will have real and serious financial consequences for the citizens of Kane County.”

Under the 2006 legislation authorizing the pipeline, the recipient water districts — initially Washington, Iron and Kane counties — are on the hook to pay back all the project’s costs, which would be financed by Utah taxpayers.

The district’s sudden reversal raises a number of questions about why a tiny rural Utah water district, which barely existed when the pipeline first was envisioned in the mid-1990s, got entangled in the massive project and who will cover its share of the costs incurred to date. The state has spent $36.6 million thus far on studies and planning, according to state officials.

“Kane County no longer has a project share or financial obligation,” said Joel Williams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. “The project costs will be borne by the Washington County Water Conservancy District as the sole participant.”

Kane’s withdrawal eliminates the need to build a 10-mile spur that was to offload Kane County’s share in Johnson Canyon, reducing project tab by $35 million, he added.

“They were a very minor player in this,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “With [Kane County] out of the project, it’s not going to have any effect on the project.”

‘If people need water ...’

(Tribune file photo) Mike Noel, shown here as a Utah legislator, recently pulled the Kane County Water Conservancy District out of the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.

In an interview Wednesday, Noel explained his district’s continued participation would have bogged down the pipeline’s ongoing permitting process, which is expected to reach a major milestone in June, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation releases a draft environmental impact statement.

“We have an opportunity to be involved again. We would go through another NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process. That is a decision a future board would have to make,” he said. If the need arises in the future, he added, Kane easily could tap into the pipeline where it passes through midway between Lake Powell and St. George.

“My position is that if people need water, I’m there to provide it,” Noel said. “If I have a pipeline coming through my canyon and I can take some of the water at the headwaters of our system, I would be a fool not to get involved with that.”

The project’s permitting history under NEPA has followed a complicated path with lots of twists and turns. Until last year, the review was overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because of the pipeline’s power-generation components, which later were dropped. That agency decided that it lacked appropriate jurisdiction because the project was not a true energy project but rather a water-delivery system, prompting Utah water officials to enlist the Bureau of Reclamation.

“As part of our obligation as the lead federal agency on a NEPA project, it is our job to look at and vet data so we can work though the purpose and need for the project,” said Rick Baxter, a Reclamation program manager overseeing the analysis. “As we walked through that process, we found what seemed to be some discrepancies. Is there truly a need for this project? So we put it back on [Kane] County.”

A short time later, on April 10, the bureau received a reply letter signed by Noel, indicating the Kane district would pull out rather than defend its water-need projections.

The district did not publicly announce the withdrawal until six days later, when the Utah Division of Water Resources put out a news release three hours before the water district’s board was scheduled to meet. At that meeting, Noel explained his decision by simply reading the release, which provided little basis for the district’s reversal.

The board members did not ask a single question, according to an audio recording of the meeting. But Frankel, the longtime pipeline critic who joined the meeting by phone, pressed Noel for details.

Noel said he still believes Kane County will need the water someday — just not now.

‘We will need it’

“We didn’t anticipate needing that water for at least 20 years, but we will need it the next 50 years. It’s not in the foreseeable future, but it’s still in our plans to use that water. The decision was not to give up our water rights,” Noel said. “The decision was to take ourselves out of the project, which saves us $1.3 million of the cost of the EIS at this point. It was an easy decision to make.”

Noel said the bureau insisted on using population projections developed by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute instead of those from Utah water officials.

Under long-term estimates Gardner released in 2018, Kane’s population was forecast to grow by 4,175 residents or 57% by 2065, while Washington County’s population was expected to swell by 229% to 509,000. Population projections for Kane County suggest, pipeline critics say, that existing sources can cover its future water needs.

Noel complained that Gardner’s projections covered only full-time residents, so they don’t account for all county’s water needs, including second-home owners and tourist accommodations.

In the interview, he said 4 million tourists pass through the county each year, transient-room tax receipts have tripled in recent years, and two new RV parks are coming on line. The county could have up to 9,000 overnight guests, effectively doubling its population at times.

Frankel has long argued that both Kane and Washington counties can meet the needs of their growing populations if they embrace conservation and convert agricultural water to municipal use, thus avoiding a costly, environmentally destructive project. At last week’s meeting, he accused Noel of misleading the public about his county’s need for new water sources.

“You want water so you can go river boating. I have to get water for people to live. That’s what this water project is about,” Noel shot back. “Right now, we have pulled out of the EIS. We think Washington County needs it sooner than we do, but we are going to need that water in the future. It’s going to go through, and we will get the Lake Powell pipeline, and the yellow dog will bark and the caravan will go on, thank you very much.”

Frankel’s response: “Mike Noel has been deceptive for 15 years. Why should we believe his lies now? To believe anything he has to say today is pure folly.”