Andrew Kramer: Recycling water a better alternative to Lake Powell pipeline

The use-it-and-throw-it-away mindset is not sustainable

FILE - This March 23, 2012, file photo, shows pipes extending into Lake Mead well above the high water mark near Boulder City, Nev. Six states in the U.S. West that rely on the Colorado River to sustain cities and farms rebuked a plan to build an underground pipeline that would transport billions of gallons of water through the desert to southwest Utah. In a joint letter Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming urged the U.S. government to halt the approval process for the project, which would bring water 140 miles (225 km) from Lake Powell in northern Arizona to the growing area surrounding St. George, Utah. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

The proposed multibillion-dollar Lake Powell pipeline would be one of the most expensive projects in state history, requiring dramatic hikes in water rates and impact fees in Washington County and increases in property taxes statewide. For those of us expected to pay for this massive project, we deserve complete well-reasoned analyses of less costly, viable alternatives that could be used in place of the pipeline.

Instead, since inception of the project in 2006, pipeline proponents have been obsessed with the pipeline being the only workable option and, consequently, have not fairly considered more efficient alternatives. Their bias has caused them to politicize and skew data to support the pipeline while discounting feasible alternatives like water conservation and development of local untapped water sources. Moreover, they have ignored the efficacy of reclaiming/recycling wastewater for potable (drinking) use, which has proved successful in other communities.

In the larger context, our high-consumption “one-time use, throw away” approach prevalent in our society is unsustainable. Increasing population mandates we discard less and reuse more of our precious resources. This requires moving beyond limited thinking, abandoning outmoded wasteful methods and adopting more efficient leading-edge innovations.

Washington County has an extensive water infrastructure. Although some water is recycled for irrigation, most is used once, treated for discharge, then “thrown away” — returned to the Virgin River.

Because pipeline proponents dismiss alternatives, they claim (falsely) we need a “second source” of water, Lake Powell, to meet our future water needs. They refuse to acknowledge by increasing wastewater reuse, a “second source” is already available within Washington County.

In fact, recycled wastewater could provide more than 20% of our current potable water needs. By 2065, recycled wastewater coupled with reasonably achievable conservation could provide at least half of our potable water needs and much of our irrigation water.

As explained below, the advantages of wastewater recycling vastly outweigh importing water from Lake Powell.

My July 29 commentary, “Pipeline project based on inaccurate studies,” describes formidable obstacles to the Lake Powell pipeline. A partial list is summarized here:

(1) Utah’s water rights are insecure. Water availability is not guaranteed. (2) Transferring water from the Upper to the Lower Basin, necessary with the pipeline, violates Colorado River law and requires approval of the six other basin states and Congress. (3) The six basin states requested Utah halt the approval process and negotiate legal and operational concerns or face lengthy legal action. (4) With a total cost of $4 billion to $6 billion, including bond interest, and no federal funding, the pipeline is cost prohibitive. (5) The 140-mile pipeline and associated infrastructure would cause extensive environmental damage.

By contrast, wastewater recycling has many advantages:

(1) Because wastewater recycling is implemented within Washington County, it avoids complicated federal approval, river law requirements and challenges by the six basin states. The regulatory approval process is greatly simplified. (2) Other formidable obstacles to the pipeline noted above are nonissues with wastewater recycling. (3) The cost of recycling is significantly less than the pipeline — millions, not billions — and affordable for water users, taxpayers and developers/builders. (4) Unlike the pipeline, wastewater recycling is eligible for federal funding and grants. (5) Instead of the multibillion-dollar upfront expenditure for the pipeline, wastewater recycling capacity can be expanded incrementally as needed, allocating costs over time and paid as population increases. (6) Cost effective, innovative technologies for wastewater recycling are available and proven.

Many communities have implemented wastewater recycling. Example:

Orange County, Calif., has the world’s largest wastewater recycling and water purification system. Begun years ago when water supplies declined, its system now recycles 200 million gallons of wastewater daily that previously would have been discharged into the Pacific Ocean. Using advanced purification technologies, its 2.5 million citizens drink some of the world’s cleanest water and pay reasonable water rates.

As for other feasible alternatives, reliable studies prove that combining attainable conservation with development of untapped local sources, Washington County has sufficient water to serve more than 509,000, the county’s projected 2065 population, without the pipeline.

In addition, to curb our unsustainable “throw away” approach, reclaiming/recycling wastewater is viable, economical and mandatory. Coupled with water conservation, it’s far superior to building the pipeline.

Andrew Kramer

Andrew Kramer is a Vietnam veteran and retired architect who managed large projects with firms in Boston and Denver.