St. George says it’s counting on getting water from Lake Powell. Environmentalists want to stop the project.

Washington County says they are still counting on the water.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) The bathtub ring at the Escalante delta at Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Oct. 17, 2023. A proposed pipeline would transport water from Lake Powell 143 miles to St. George and Kane County.

A stalled regulatory process, extreme drought and significant opposition have stranded the Lake Powell pipeline in permitting purgatory, leading many to believe that the project was dead in the (lack of) water.

But it’s not, and environmental nonprofits from across the Colorado River Basin want to change that.

They are asking the Department of the Interior to eject the Lake Powell pipeline from future environmental permitting — essentially, to prevent it from ever being built.

“The [Lake Powell pipeline] is incompatible with sustainable Colorado River policy, it is incompatible with the Bureau of Reclamation’s direction calling upon Colorado River Basin states to cut 2-4 million acre-feet from the system, and we believe the Bureau of Reclamation should not be permitting a project that would further reduce the Colorado River water supply,” reads their letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

The pipeline, which has been in limbo since 2020, would span 143 miles from shrinking Lake Powell to St. George and Kane County. Water managers in Washington County, where St. George is located, say that the city needs Colorado River water to sustain its booming population.

The pipeline would draw 86,000 acre-feet per year of the lake’s water, which is supplied by the drought-stricken Colorado River, and cost the state between $1.3 and $2.2 billion to construct.

Utah water officials thought that the project would be approved by the end of 2020, but the other six states that make up the Colorado River Basin — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming — asserted that the project raised “substantive legal and operational issues” in a letter to former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages water projects, then issued a supplemental environmental impact statement to address the public comments brought by the basin states and conservation groups. As of last August, $30 million had been consumed by the project’s environmental review and planning processes.

Despite these stalls and setbacks, permitting efforts for the pipeline have quietly continued.

“The [Lake Powell pipeline] remains an essential part of Utah’s long-term water supply plan for southern Utah,” Karry Rathje, communications director for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune.

“Because Washington County’s growth projections outstrip available local water supplies, Washington County continues to plan for its long-term future, including acquiring rights of way when available,” Rathje continued.

Colorado River flows have decreased by 20% since the turn of the century due to extreme drought, and Lake Powell has felt the loss. Lake Powell is currently only 35% full.

The pipeline’s draft design, which could put intakes above the lake’s dwindling surface, is incompatible with drought conditions and diminishing flows.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Zachary Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, told The Tribune. “And how is it that the Lower Basin is cutting 3 million acre-feet and Utah is proposing the largest new water diversion anywhere in the basin?”

In May, the Lower Colorado River Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — agreed to slash their water use by at least 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026. They said that 1.5 million acre-feet of that total would be conserved by the end of 2024.

Last week, California announced that it would cut its Colorado River use by 643,000 acre-feet through the end of 2025 as part of this agreement.

Environmental nonprofits that oppose the pipeline say that the project flies in the face of these current efforts to conserve water in the basin. Rathje wrote that “Washington County is doing everything possible to meet increasing water demands with increased conservation, additional reuse and local supply development.”