Can the Lake Powell pipeline still happen?

Utah wants to take more water out of the Colorado at the same time that river is running dry.

This article is part of a special issue on the future of Lake Powell looking at the reservoir as overallocation and severe drought dry the Colorado River. More coverage at Countdown to dead pool: Lake Powell’s uncertain future.

Already in doubt from the West’s changing climate, a proposed pipeline across southern Utah remains bogged in a regulatory limbo that could hold up the project indefinitely.

If built, Utah’s 143-mile Lake Powell pipeline would draw up to 86,000 acre-feet of the Colorado River’s flow — depleted by drought and overuse — from the ever-shrinking Lake Powell for use in St. George and Kane County.

By the time Utah water bosses clear a stalled environmental review and secure the water rights, however, there may be no Lake Powell as we’ve known it, just a “dead pool” stacked behind Glen Canyon Dam. Complicating this bleak picture is the pipeline’s current design, which places the intakes above the lake’s future levels, leaving them high, dry and unusable if the drought continues to drain the lake.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An ore cart in the Glen Canyon Recreation Area on Tuesday, July 12, 2022.

“It seems like there’s cognitive dissonance in a proposal to divert a ton of additional water from this river, the largest new diversion of Colorado River water, at a time when the federal government is demanding the Colorado River Basin states find a way to conserve water,” said Eric Balken, executive director the Glen Canyon Institute. “The political realities of this depleting river are going to make it much more challenging” to complete the pipeline.

For its part, Utah claims it is entitled to the water the pipeline would divert under the century-old compact among the seven states in the Colorado River basin. Utah is supposed to get 23% of the Upper Colorado Basin’s flow, the amount left after the Lower Basin states and Mexico get their share.

Established when the river’s flow exceeded 15 million acre-feet, the interstate compact calls for the Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — to receive 7.5 million acre-feet. After Mexico and tribal nations get their cut, the Upper Basin — Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — share what’s left. The problem is that share has been shrinking since 2000.

A $1.8 billion pipeline planned on a century-old assumption

Utah is probably already taking out its portion, according to Mark Squillace, a University of Colorado law professor and expert in natural resources law.

“My question is 23% of what? They assume it’s 23% of 7.5 million acre-feet, but we know that’s not true, that there is not 16.5 million acre-feet in the [entire] basin in a given year,” Squillace said. “We need to make some compromises, and we need to decide what exactly the Upper Basin states have left of their allocations. And it may be they don’t have anything depending on how much water is available.”

Given the crisis on the river, Squillace and others wonder if it makes sense for Utah to pull water from Lake Powell with a $1.8 billion pipeline. About $30 million has already been spent on planning and environmental reviews for the project.

While acknowledging the Colorado’s flows are down about 20% from 20 years ago, Utah water managers still say the pipeline remains a priority for the state, but it may not deliver as much water as initially intended.

“Based on current and projected hydrology in the Colorado River basin, a potential Lake Powell pipeline project must have the ability to operate at reduced capacity,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, or CRAU. “For any planned project, this becomes a business question: how much risk is Utah willing to take to develop a new project in the event anticipated volumes of water are not available? This question is not unique to Utah — our sister states who have planned water development projects on the books are grappling with the same issue.”

Meanwhile, the project has yet to clear two major regulatory milestones — a federal environmental impact statement and a water rights “change application” — despite years of effort.

The water application would allow the pipeline to access the state’s rights to Green River water stored in Flaming Gorge Reservoir. It seeks to change the location of where and how the water would be used — from agricultural use by the Central Utah Project to municipal use in Washington and Kane counties. The state would then tap the Green River water hundreds of miles south near the Glen Canyon Dam.

Almost two years since a formal hearing on the application, a decision has yet to be issued. If the application is rejected, the state would have to acquire water rights from other places, potentially from Utah farmers who would be paid to forego using the water on crops.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Dead at dead pool

Further complicating the picture is the pipeline’s design, which potentially places the intakes above the lake’s current surface. The intakes would be unusable at times should the lake drop below Glen Canyon Dam’s outlet, which is more likely as the drought drags on with no agreement among the states to cut back their water diversions.

With the expanding crisis on the Colorado, it’s possible that the pipeline plans could adapt.

“The current design of the Lake Powell Pipeline intake is based on hydrology, water quality and geotechnical considerations,” said Michael Sanchez, a spokesman with the Utah Board of Water Resources. “This is a preliminary design and subject to change.”

Under current designs, the intake structure would feature six 6-foot diameter tunnels bored through the Glen Canyon’s sandstone wall near the dam. The tunnels would be sited in pairs at three different elevations in 100-foot intervals, the highest starting at 3,575 feet above sea level. With intakes at varying elevations, pipeline operators would be able to adjust where they pull water depending on the lake’s level. Drawing water from the highest possible elevation would reduce pumping costs.

However, the upper intake portals would be nearly 40 feet above the lake’s current level. The other pairs of intake tunnels would open at 3,475 feet and 3,375 feet in elevation — slightly above dead pool.

The pipeline has also been under review by various federal agencies, most recently the Bureau of Reclamation, which issued a draft environmental impact statement more than two years ago. At the time, Utah officials were predicting a decision to approve the pipeline by the end of 2020.

Instead, the bureau initiated a “supplemental” EIS to explore the more pressing concerns raised by conservation groups and other states in their public comments on the draft.

Some insisted the bureau should look into whether Washington County could meet its water needs through conservation and other measures that could make the pipeline unnecessary. Meanwhile, the other six basin states implored the Interior Department not to authorize the project until after “outstanding legal and operational concerns” were resolved.

In an Aug. 9 oped, Squillace and graduate student Quinn Harper argue Colorado should consider abandoning two diversions currently under construction — the Gross Reservoir and Windy Gap projects — that would move up to 48,000 acre-feet out of the Colorado River basin to Denver, Fort Collins and other cities on Colorado’s Front Range to the east side of the Rocky Mountains and expand water storage by 167,000 acre-feet.

“These two projects suggest that Colorado is prepared to exacerbate the current crisis when the opposite response is so desperately needed,” they wrote. “Abandoning these two projects would signal that Colorado is serious about giving the Colorado River a fighting chance at survival. It might also jump-start good-faith negotiations over how Mexico, the states, and tribes might work to achieve a long-term solution to this crisis.”

He says the same logic applies to the Lake Powell pipeline.

“There are things that St. George could be doing, like Las Vegas taking out all of the grass in the area,” Squillace said. “They may need to give up some of their golf courses [in Utah’s Washington County] and the amenities that they have. Maybe that’s the only fair response to the crisis that we’re facing right now.”

(Tom Wharton | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sun River Golf Course near St. George in 2017.

Growth that bets on the pipeline

Washington County’s population is expected to triple to more than 500,000 by 2065. With year-round golf and Zion National Park, the county is already a tourism hotspot with 6 million visitors a year. Proponents say the pipeline would cover 34% of the county’s projected water needs, while existing sources connected to the Virgin River would cover 28%.

The Virgin and its tributaries alone cannot satisfy the coming demand and the pipeline would diversify St. George’s supply, according to Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

“The Colorado River has been shown to be the most reliable water source in the Western U.S.,” Renstrom told the Utah State Engineer’s Office in an October 2020 hearing regarding the water rights for the pipeline. “The Virgin fluctuates between floods and extreme drought. We need to expand the resources we have now. We welcome people into our community. We live in an amazing place down there and we want to share that with others.”

While the state remains committed to the pipeline, uncertainty now surrounds when it will be built and how much water it will move, said Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, the agency leading the project.

“We’re currently working with the other Colorado River Basin states on potential solutions to the water supply shortages in the Colorado River system and acknowledge that any of these discussions may impact Lake Powell pipeline’s scope and timing,” Hasenyager said. “That being said, the development and operation of the pipeline, as well as any other [Utah] project that uses Colorado River water, must occur within the constraints of Utah’s 23% of the available supply in the Colorado River Basin. We will maintain our commitment to the compact.”

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