Thomas Urquhart: Pipeline lacks three elements to be allowed to proceed

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Taxpayers can expect to foot up to 72 percent of the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline's costs, according to University of Utah economists who analyzed repayment models developed in support of the billion-dollar-plus proposal to pipe Colorado River water from Glen Canyon Dam, above, 140 miles to St. George.

In its final stages of permitting, the Lake Powell Pipeline lacks three key elements to make the project more sustainable and equitable. The project should not proceed until these three basic elements are satisfied.

First, the Utah Board of Water Resources (UBWR) should demand hydroelectric energy storage.

The cost of solar panels has plummeted in recent years making the new barrier to adoption an ability to use the energy when it is needed most, not just when it is sunny. This can be done by passing water between reservoirs at different heights to store energy. The Lake Powell Pipeline is a perfect candidate for this hydroelectric storage since it will pass massive amounts of water through steep elevation changes.

Admittedly, this is something UBWR wanted to do until a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit became too difficult. The permit application was withdrawn in 2019, and a clean, reliable form of energy was lost — not to mention a major funding source for the $1 billion to $2 billion project.

After dropping the hydroelectric component, state officials claimed it never made financial sense — a highly suspect claim based on capital costs of similar projects. Instead of backtracking on previous claims, UBWR should fight as aggressively for hydroelectric energy storage as it has for the rest of this project.

Second, the Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD) should alter their funding mix for the pipeline.

Approximately half of the funding for the pipeline would come from impact fees, a nearly uniform fee for each new development. Reaching over $15,000 per lot within five years, this will hurt development. All the county gets for this growth-restricting, regressive tax is the continued subsidization of irresponsible water use.

On the other hand, charging more sensible water rates rewards healthy water users. This is the market approach as people pay for what they use. WCWCD is raising water rates from $1.24 to $3 per 1,000 gallons of water between now and 2045, accounting for about 30% of LPP funding. About half of this increase will follow the rate of inflation, yet residential rates will still be cheaper than what other municipalities currently charge.

Fortunately, there is a way to preserve low-cost water while lessening demand. Cities can charge a low base rate and increase prices with excess use, a common pricing structure known as inclining block rate. St. George does have inclining prices, but at insignificant levels compared to other cities.

Last, WCWCD should revise its conservation targets.

Per capita water use is 2-to-3 times higher in Washington County than other Southwestern communities. WCWCD is quick to point out that this number is inflated by large numbers of second-homes, tourists and farms for such a small population.

However, WCWCD is aiming for a meager 10% reduction in per capita use by 2060, even as the county is expected to triple in size. It’s as if the district is expecting not only a tripling of parks, showers and lawns, but also second-homes, tourists and farms.

While revising this number won’t fix anything in itself, shooting for a benchmark over twice the national average will all but guarantee real conservation does not take place.

The Colorado River is a shared and precious resource, but climate change is expected to further reduce the river’s already diminished flow. If Washington County is going to pull water from the Colorado, it must do so responsibly which means it must (1) utilize clean, reliable, and cheap hydroelectric energy storage, (2) develop a financing plan that allows for affordable housing while encouraging wise water use, and (3) get serious about conserving precious water resources.

Thomas Urquhart

Thomas Urquhart, Salt Lake City, was born and raised in St. George and recently graduated from MIT with a degree that included a minor in energy and environmental policy.