Eric Balken: Upcoming EIS is a chance for Utahns to speak out against Lake Powell Pipeline

(Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) This April 30, 2011 photo shows Lake Powell in southeastern Utah. A Utah Legislative audit has determined Washington County is expected to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate a proposed water pipeline. The state concluded the audit Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, saying the proposed Lake Powell pipeline would require a large fee, rate and tax increases and cost about $1.4 billion over the next 50 years. Officials say the 140-mile (225-kilometer) line would divert water from the Colorado River across southern Utah each year to the Sand Hallow Reservoir to supply the St. George metro area.

On June 5, the Provo office of the Bureau of Reclamation will release a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Lake Powell Pipeline project, opening up a 45-day public comment period. Utahns should take advantage of this opportunity to speak out against the pipeline, which would burden the state’s taxpayers for decades and increase our state’s reliance on a dwindling resource.

The project, the largest new diversion of the Colorado River, estimated to cost anywhere from $2 billion to $3 billion dollars, would pump water 2,000 feet uphill, over 140 miles of Southern Utah desert, to provide additional water to Washington County, which has one of the worst records of water waste in the West. This comes at a time when the Colorado River is experiencing one of the harshest droughts in 500 years, a result of a warming phenomenon that climate scientists predict is only getting worse.

It’s no secret the Colorado River is over-tapped. The imbalance between natural supply and actual allocations for its water has been well documented for decades. Last year, Lake Powell dipped to within 45 feet of the level that would trigger an official shortage, and Lake Mead skirted its official shortage elevation by only a few feet. The total combined water stored between the two reservoirs dropped to its lowest levels since Powell began filling in the 1960’s.

Furthermore, a myriad of climate studies published in recent years are telling us the water shortage is only just beginning. One prominent study from Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck showed that climate change has already depleted the Colorado River’s flows by about 20%, and that we could expect it to further diminish another 30% by mid-century.

A report from Stanford released this year shows that we are now experiencing an era of drought worse than any in the past 500 years, again, supercharged by a warming climate. So, it’s likely we’ll see more years like 2020, where despite our ski resorts receiving over 500 inches of snow, a warm and dry spring depletes the subsequent runoff. The inflow to Lake Powell this year is projected to be only 65% of average.

This is why other states in the basin are taking steps to reduce their dependence on the fickle Colorado River. Under the recently passed Drought Contingency Plans, Arizona, California and Nevada are preparing to take less water from the river to avoid shortage. Even California, the state with largest claim to the river, proactively took cuts ahead of what the law requires — something once thought inconceivable.

The Utah Board of Water Resources should take note of what’s happening in the Lower Basin states that rely on the Colorado — they’re working to use less water, not more. Utah would be foolish to make a multibillion dollar bet on a project to pump water that probably won’t be there in the future.

If Washington County practiced modern water conservation like its neighbors in Las Vegas and Tucson, it would easily be able to continue growing without this wasteful project. When the public comment period opens for the Lake Powell Pipeline draft EIS in June, it’s imperative that Utahns speak up, before it’s too late. Don’t let the Board of Water Resources burden future generations with a hefty tax bill and an over-reliance on a dwindling resource.

Eric Balken

Eric Balken is a Utah native and executive director of Glen Canyon Institute