Paul Van Dam: Massive Lake Powell Pipeline project affects all Utahns, not just Washington County

This April 30, 2011 photo shows Lake Powellin 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. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

People generally think of the Lake Powell Pipeline (LPP) as a southern Utah project, which it is. But we should not forget that the project, first conceived in 1995 and mandated by the 2006 Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act, would burden all Utahns.

Utah would bond for 50 years or more and Washington County would repay, only slowly, tying up much needed state funds at a time when the our ability to balance the budget will be challenging.

A handout at Gov. Gary Herbert’s Executive Water Finance Board (EWFB) September 2018 meeting revealed state bonding would essentially be a $1 billion subsidy to Washington County, with annual payments by the state of $80 million to $120 million, consuming most of the general fund growth all by itself, taking funds away from other needs. That calculation was based on an estimated pipeline cost of $1.3 billion to $1.8 billion, but who knows what the real cost will be?

According to the EWFB, this situation could be resolved by increasing Washington County participation in LPP repayment (already projected to be high according to 20 Utah university economists); increasing federal participation (really? During a time of federal debt due to COVID?); taking money from education or transportation (denying “real” Utah needs) or increasing state taxes (we all love taxes, right?). In fact, it was clear during the EWFB discussion that the state may never be fully repaid, a worry shared in a 2019 legislative audit.

It’s clear that two of the options — taking education and transportation money or increasing state taxes — mean that all Utahns, not just Washington County residents, would be affected for many, many years.

Scores of Utahns enjoy relaxing in Southern Utah so protecting water supply availability might be a concern for some. However, Utahns outside of Washington County probably don’t know that we use 303 gallons of water per capita per day. That’s an incredible amount, far above the national average of 179 gallons per person per day and much more than many other desert communities use. In fact, Washington County’s 2065 usage goal, based on a 2019 Utah Division of Water Resources regional conservation plan, would still be 259 gallons per person per day!

Other southwestern communities are growing and vibrant while using much less water. The widespread presumption that water demand must increase with population growth drives much of the politics of water. But it is wrong. In almost all municipal areas served with Colorado River water, water use is going down, despite increasing population growth. We don’t need a massive and expensive water project to grow and prosper as officials like to assert.

Washington County citizens don’t need all Utahs to assume a massive debt for the county’s overuse of water. The county’s local supply of water including other projects already planned — without the LPP — will provide an estimated 100,000 acre-feet per year, enough to handle the projected growth. And all we have to do is adopt reasonable and proven water conservation measures — making our pioneer founders proud!

So what are our options? Must all Utahns have this project forced down our throats?

And why mention the LPP right now? Simple. It’s time for all Utahns to engage during the current 90-day public comment period on the LPP. This is an opportunity for everyone to learn about the project and what it would mean for us, wherever we live.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s draft environmental impact statement issued on June 5 is a big document, one which most citizens would find difficult to review, particularly as we try to get back to a more normal life. That’s where Conserve Southwest Utah can help. We have studied this issue for over a decade; we’ll be reviewing the DEIS and sharing information. If readers go to https://conserveswu.org/get-involved/ and sign up, CSU can keep you abreast of what’s happening during the public comment period and provide information to help with your own comments.

We need all hands on deck to ensure this project gets a thorough review with alternatives fairly considered. We hope you’ll be with us in this important task.

Paul Van Dam

Paul Van Dam, Ivins, is a board member of Conserve Southwest Utah and a former Utah attorney general.