Bill Barron: Lake Powell Pipeline would accelerate climate damage in Colorado River Basin

(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.

Rivers. Without them we could not live in our desert state.

The Colorado River in Southern Utah is one of those rivers that allow us the survive, thrive and enjoy a unique landscape found no-where else in the world. It provides a unique ecosystem for migrating birds, for the grazing and migration of the Paunsaugunt mule deer herd, for endangered flora and of course provides the vital water for communities along the river and for the farmers who grow our food.

Already affected by the warming temperatures of climate change the flow of the Colorado is once again being challenged by a proposed $2.24 billion taxpayer-funded pipeline taking 86,000 square-acre-feet of water to a community that already uses 234% more water than the average community -- and does not need it.

Science shows that the Colorado River faces severe decreases in flows and adding a massive diversion project, like the Lake Powell Pipeline, is a short-term solution that pushes the Colorado River Basin closer to a total system collapse.

The Bureau of Reclamation in its 2012 Report, shows that Colorado River flows will decrease between 9% and 15% by 2060. Water is legally allocated to states as a percentage of total flows over a 10-year period in the Colorado River Basin. If flows decline 9% to 15% by 2060, one out of every four to five years basin users will exceed their Colorado River water allocations. This means that current allocations will have to be reduced as there will not be enough water in the Colorado River. Future diversion projects will be unable to occur as current demands will take precedent.

This 2012 report does not include the additional 86,000-acre-foot diversion by the Lake Powell Pipeline, which will put further stress on the river and increase the likelihood of over allocation.

In the official planning documents for the pipeline, the Division of Water Resources uses climate change studies produced by the Bureau of Reclamation from 2012 and 2016. The 2012 Report, now eight years old, is the only document the division uses that analyzes reduced flows in the Colorado River as a result of climate change.

Recent peer-reviewed studies by climate scientists and hydrologists have found that the Colorado River Basin is much worse off than was forecast in this 2012 Report. Climate change has already impacted the river flows in the Colorado River Basin, sparking the implementation of the Drought Contingency Plan, which mandated cuts to Lower Basin states’ 2020 water allocations. These current studies on the impacts from climate change have shown that river flows will decline by up to 30%, nearly double what the 2012 Report forecast.

These massive reductions in river flows, as a result of climate change, will fundamentally jeopardize the water supply of 30-plus million downstream Colorado River water users.

In the recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Lake Powell Pipeline, nearly 2000 pages are devoted to studying its environmental effects. However, there is no examination of whether there will be enough water for the pipeline in 20 years’ time. Even so, nearly $38 million in taxpayer money has been spent on planning and studying the project.

Pipeline proponents have refused to consider whether water will even be available to Utah or other Colorado River Basin states due to climate change impacts. If they did, I believe they would see that the Lake Powell Pipeline could be dry in 20 years.

I appreciate the desire for the Washington County Water District and the Division of Water Resources to want a reliable source of water in Southern Utah, but we must consider the impacts climate change has already had, and will have on the Colorado River Basin.

As a three-time single-issue federal climate candidate for Congress, I’ve advocated for climate solutions that match the scale of the problem. Let’s prioritize what science tells us, and put our tax dollars towards water conservation, environmental stewardship and climate legislation that calls for a federal carbon tax -- such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act already in the House.

Let your state representatives know that you support solutions that maintain our pristine desert for the flora, fauna and communities whose lives depend on its bounty.

Bill Barron

Bill Barron is the Mountain West Regional Coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby covering Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. He lives in Salt Lake City.