Steve Hogseth: Predictions of 1922 no reason for Lake Powell Pipeline

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Change in water level shows about 90 feet of rock near Bullfrog Bay on Nov. 29, 2018, that has been exposed since Lake Powell has receded.

In 1963, the Glen Canyon Dam began to systematically retain a portion of the flow of the Colorado River. In essence, this was the birth of Lake Powell. Seventeen years later, in 1980, the lake reached its “full” capacity.

Hoover Dam, built in 1936, was the force behind the creation of Lake Mead. Powell is roughly 93% the capacity of Mead, and between the two lakes they have been a significant source for fresh water, hydropower and recreation for the people of the southwest.

Soon after that 1980 “full” date, the tandem of Mead and Powell gradually began diminishing in volume. The declining trend-line for each lake has been similar for nearly four decades; as a pair they are now less than half full. Clearly, the demand upon these lakes is exceeding their capacity.

Taking that ominous trend into consideration, it is understandable that the Colorado River falls short of reaching the Gulf of California by approximately 50 miles. Other than an intentional “pulse flow” in 2014, the river last reached the sea in 1998.

While living in Kanab, I attended an informational meeting regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline held at the Kane County Courthouse roughly five years ago. I had a conversation with one of the men explaining the proposal, and he cited the Colorado River Compact of 1922 as “justification” to build the pipeline. Without getting into the rainfall-snowfall-climate conditions of 1922 as a predictor for then-future moisture/water conditions, and the questionable 1922 forecasting accuracy (projections in population, agriculture, industry, per capita usage, etc.) as to “what the conditions would be 92-100 years later,” it is now apparent that 1922 compact was “considerably off the mark” for today’s situation.

While talking with that gentleman in the Kanab courthouse, I cited the degrading water conditions and I appealed to the obvious, that perhaps a wiser tactic would be for the major Colorado River stakeholders to meet, do a reset, and address the greater water needs for all the people in the entire southwest region. He said, “I am tribal by nature, and I want to take care of my St. George community, and that 1922 compact is legally on our side.” He was not open to my reasoning.

The Colorado-Powell-Mead situation has worsened since that meeting in Kanab. When one reflects as to what has happened during recent decades, it is clear if people continue their typical water behavior, the situation will only deteriorate.

That alone causes me to have deep concern for water of the southwest, but drawing another 77 million gallons daily from Lake Powell will only accelerate the already declining water volume. Yet there are people who believe spending $1.8 billion for the pipeline is a great idea. To my analytical thinking, if that pipeline were to cost nothing, building it would still be a mistake.

Lake Powell is going down. Lake Mead is going down. Population is going up. Water consumption is going up. Climate change has been, and will be, a detrimental factor. Per-capita water usage in St. George is excessive and there are little-to-no signs of meaningful conservation. All the indicators are pointed in the wrong direction. As the old saying goes, “The handwriting is on the wall.”

Perhaps one of the most significant examples of the mindset of those who support the Lake Powell Pipeline occurred in Kanab during 2019. That city’s officials voted to sell a portion of its drinking water to be used for a nearby sand mine (hydraulic fracturing industry). Those officials unanimously agreed to a 50-year contract to release a quantity of their sparse and precious high desert drinking water and, in unison with that vote, they understood the water would be used to “wash” the frac sand with toxic chemicals, creating the potential to contaminate the very aquifers from which they acquire their drinking water.

Not only did their decision defy common sense, but it imposed a reckless double whammy risk on their citizens. Such action is not only disturbing and perplexing, but it is emblematic of the caliber of thinking of those most likely to support the pipeline.

Conscientious leaders must employ unbiased and independent analytical scientists, to provide true guidance on how to best deal with our water needs. I believe the heart of the solution lies in “matters of water conservation,” not only for the Southwest, but for the entire nation. It is essential that we protect and sustain our stressed fresh water!

Neither 1922 thinking nor a pipeline is the answer.

Steve Hogseth, Menomonie, Wis., has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, worked in design and product management for companies including Cray Research and Silicon Graphics and lived in Kanab from 2011 to 2018.