The Lake Powell pipeline: A timeline

The 20-year history of one of Utah’s most controversial water projects.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, in July 2023.

The Lake Powell pipeline has been dormant for years, leading many to believe that the project is dead. But it could technically still happen.

The pipeline would transport 86,000 acre-feet of water per year from drought-stricken Lake Powell on the Colorado River to southwestern Utah. It would stretch over 143 miles long and cost billions of dollars. At one point, it was also supposed to generate electricity for public utilities and municipalities.

But despite being authorized by the Utah Legislature over 20 years ago, the project hasn’t broken ground. Interrupted environmental impact statements and opposition from surrounding states have suspended the pipeline in regulatory limbo.

Opponents of the pipeline say that diverting water from Lake Powell — which stands at just 35% full — is antithetical to ongoing multi-state efforts to conserve Colorado River water in the West. The Colorado River provides water for 40 million people, and its flows have decreased by 20% since the turn of the century.

Most recently, a group of environmental nonprofits from across the Colorado River Basin banded together to ask the federal government to kill the pipeline.

Here’s how we got to this point.

2006: Utah Legislature passes the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act

The Legislature authorized the Utah Board of Water Resources to plan and construct the pipeline, which they said would meet projected water demand for southwestern Utah through 2060. Washington County would receive the majority of the diverted water.

The buried pipeline would be diverted from Lake Powell at an intake near Glen Canyon Dam and pumped uphill to a point east of Kanab. The rest of the pipeline would run 89 miles downhill to Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County.

The downhill portion of the project was originally planned to feature four in-line hydroelectric generating stations. Electricity generated by the pipeline would have been sold to public utilities and municipalities to offset project costs.

2008: Utah Board of Water Resources files Notification of Intent for the pipeline

The board proposed a dual-purpose water supply and hydroelectric power generation project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Dec. 11, 2017: FERC has questions about its control over the project

The commission stated that while it had jurisdiction over the proposed pipeline’s electricity-generating equipment and transmission lines, it had “not yet determined whether water delivery pipelines will be included as part of the licensed hydro facilities.”

Jan. 2018: Pipeline procedural schedule suspended

Utah’s congressional delegation asked FERC to suspend the pipeline’s procedural schedule until the commission determined whether or not it had jurisdiction over the water delivery aspect of the project.

By this date, the state of Utah had invested over $34 million in preparing and submitting a comprehensive license application for the Lake Powell pipeline.

Aug. 22, 2018: Utah asks FERC to lift the pipeline’s schedule suspension

Just months later, the Utah Board of Water Resources and the Washington County Water Conservancy District asked that the commission lift the schedule suspension “immediately” so that they could “move forward expeditiously with the development of the Environmental Impact Statement.”

Sept. 20, 2018: FERC says it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the pipeline’s hydropower facilities

The commission determined that it only had jurisdiction over the hydropower stations along the downhill part of the pipeline, which “does not include the water delivery pipeline that connects those developments.”

This determination meant that Utah would have to go through other permitting processes for the pipeline with the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service.

With this decision made, the project could move forward with a draft environmental impact statement. FERC remained the lead agency for that process.

Eric Millis, who was then director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said that his agency was “fully committed to this project, including the hydropower generation facilities.”

Sept. 25, 2019: Utah announces that it’s removing most hydropower from the Lake Powell pipeline project

At the time, the Utah Board of Water Resources said that it was “simplifying the Lake Powell Pipeline (LPP) project” by doing so.

“The primary purpose of the LPP is to diversify and increase the water supply for 13 communities in southwestern Utah. Focusing on the water delivery portion of the project streamlines the permitting process and helps move the project forward as efficiently as possible,” Millis said.

Utah’s decision eliminated FERC’s license requirement for the Lake Powell pipeline. As a result, the Utah Board of Water Resources asked that the Bureau of Reclamation, which is housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior, lead the environmental impact statement process instead.

Dec. 2019: The Bureau of Reclamation states its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the pipeline

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies must prepare an environmental impact statement “if a proposed major federal action is determined to significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

April 2020: Kane County pulls out of the Lake Powell Pipeline project

The Kane County Water Conservancy District said that the county would not need water from Lake Powell after reviewing its anticipated population growth and projected water supplies.

June 2020: The Bureau of Reclamation publishes the draft environmental impact statement for the pipeline

The Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians responded to the draft environmental impact statement almost immediately.

Tribal officials wrote that “the [Lake Powell pipeline] project proposes to remove the Colorado River from its appropriate place and to move it elsewhere to be used in different ways. This action will make the river angry and confused, the results of which are unknown but clearly a source of imbalance in the world.”

Sept. 8, 2020: Surrounding states ask feds to halt the pipeline project

The six other states of the Colorado River Basin — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming — asked that the Department of the Interior not approve a final environmental impact statement or record of decision for the Lake Powell pipeline until all seven states could reach a consensus on the project.

“The Lake Powell PIpeline’s prospects for success are substantially diminished if we are compelled to address such issues in the context of the current Lake Powell Pipeline [National Environmental Protection Act] process rather than through the collaborative, seven-state process we have developed,” the states’ letter to then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt read in part.

The states also said that they would likely go to court over a final environmental impact statement for the Lake Powell pipeline.

“That is not a recipe for creating the kind of meaningful and positive change needed to sustain the Colorado River in the coming decades,” the letter read.

Sept. 24, 2020: Utah asks for more time to review public comments on the pipeline environmental impact statement

“The Lake Powell Pipeline is a critical water infrastructure project for Utah,” said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, at the time. “The extension will allow more time to consider the comments and complete further analysis, which will contribute to a more comprehensive draft and final EIS.”

The project had been moving quickly toward approval before this point, with a final environmental impact statement expected in November 2020 and a final decision expected in January 2021.

Utah said it would move forward with a “supplemental” environmental analysis responding to concerns about the draft environmental impact statement. That analysis has not progressed.

Dec. 18, 2023: Nonprofits ask feds to eject the pipeline from environmental permitting

The nonprofits argue that there is no surplus water in the Colorado River for the pipeline, that Washington County doesn’t need water from Lake Powell to sustain its growth and that tribes in the region have unresolved Colorado River water rights that should be prioritized over this project.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) The bathtub ring — which shows how far water levels have dropped — is visible at Lake Powell near Ticaboo, Utah on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.