Does St. George really need Lake Powell water?

Groups say local water sources and reducing per-capita use will meet Washington County’s needs for decades into the future.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lake Powell's retreating levels have left Iceberg Canyon, pictured here on May 18, 2021, completely dry except for a creek winding through deep sediment deposits on the canyon floor.

Utah’s arid and scenic southwest corner is one of the nation’s growth hot spots, bursting with new residential subdivisions with more on the way.

While Utah water officials are pushing a controversial $1.8 billion water pipeline to support this growth, various groups say there are better ways for meeting Washington County’s needs at a fraction of the price and without the environmental impacts and potential conflicts that come with moving Colorado River water 140 miles overland to St. George.

Western Resource Advocates, or WRA, on Wednesday released an alternative to the Lake Powell pipeline, called “Local Waters Alternative 2.0,” to fill what the group sees as glaring holes in the federal review of the project sponsored by the Washington County Water Conservancy District and backed by Utah taxpayer money.

“The West simply cannot afford the Lake Powell pipeline,” said John Cyran, senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates. Assuming Washington County’s population triples to nearly 600,000 by 2075, as projected, current water sources can meet that increased demand if coupled with aggressive conservation and efficiency measures, the report concludes.

Utah conservation groups like Utah Rivers Council and Conserve Southwest Utah have been making similar arguments for years. The new report is more than just arguments, but rather a comprehensive proposal backed by data and professional analysis. An update of a 2013 analysis, the new report was produced in partnership with American Rivers and prepared by the engineering firm WaterDM, a Colorado-based consultant specializing in water demand management.

The report said improved management of the Virgin River and other local sources, whose flows could deliver up to 120,000 acre-feet a year, could meet the county’s water needs.

Water district officials on Wednesday were reviewing the report’s new data, but they remained adamant that the county needs a diversity of water sources beyond what is locally available.

“As previously shared, the Local Waters Alternative would not add a critical second source of water for our community, would deplete all agricultural water supplies, and would damage the Virgin River,” said district spokeswoman Karry Rathje. “Sole reliance on the Virgin River would actually increase risks to Washington County’s water supply because it forces our community to use a source that is significantly impacted by climate change – something WRA did not consider.”

The proposed pipeline would draw 86,000 acre-feet a year from behind Glen Canyon Dam and pump it to Sand Hollow Reservoir. Critics say the Colorado River is already overtaxed and drawing more water will accelerate the collapse of Lake Powell, whose declining level hit an all-time low last week and is expected to continue dropping.

“If it is constructed, and regardless of Utah’s assumed Colorado River entitlement, the Lake Powell pipeline will still be the most recent and junior withdrawal on the system and will remain under the microscope and a lightning rod for conflict,” the report states.

With Utah’s climate becoming drier and hotter, flows on Colorado River — the source of water for the pipeline — have dwindled and the river that supplies 35 million people with water is approaching its first-ever shortage. Accordingly, the proposed pipeline may not reliably deliver water, critics say. According to federal data, flows in the Colorado River have averaged less than 20% since 2000 compared with pre-2000 levels and are expected to decline another 20 to 30% over the next two decades.

“The Lake Powell pipeline is an unacceptable step backwards. Massive and expensive water projects that service a tiny fraction of people in Utah don’t make sense,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin program. “We’re called now to be honest with ourselves about the realities of water availability in the face of climate change. Instead of status quo proposals like the Lake Powell Pipeline that increase risk in the [Colorado] Basin for farms, rural communities, and the environment, we need solutions that reduce risk and increase resilience.”

At more than 300 gallons per person per day, municipal water use in Washington County, on a per-capita basis, is at least double the use in many comparable communities in the Southwest.

“If Washington County can adapt its water use patterns over the next 50 years to be similar to those in Grand Junction or Salt Lake City or Colorado Springs, then the volume of supply provided from the Virgin River and other local resources will be more than sufficient to meet the future population,” the report said.

Just by raising rates on excessive water use and eliminating secondary water systems, which provide unmetered water for landscaping, the water district can substantially reduce demand, the new report states.

“If you have tiered water rates, you allow people to use water at reasonable levels, but if water gets wasteful used, you have to pay more for it,” Cyran said. “That’s just basic good economic sense. The other thing is to pay the real cost of the water.”

The report compares the water bills for residences who use a profligate 40,000 gallons a month, and found that Washington County’s water wasters get a deal, while those in Colorado and Arizona pay a steep price.

For example, a Tucson home using 40,000 gallons will see a monthly water bill of about $580 and a Denver customer would be billed $200, while such a home in St. George would pay less than $100.

“The lack of a price signal for high volumes of irrigation and outdoor use is one reason water demand in Washington County is higher than in many other parts of the western and southwestern U.S.,” the report said. The report argues that county’s water rates would increase drastically if those revenues are harnessed to pay for the pipeline.

“That’s going to result in people using less water,” Cyran said. “The pipeline itself is almost going to make the pipeline unnecessary.”