Commentary: The Lake Powell pipeline is a relic

Utah has spent $40 million and has nothing to show but glossy brochures and bad analysis.

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon by Pat Bagley titled "Colorado River Compact" appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2019.

For more than 14 years Utah citizens have endured the fits and starts of a Lake Powell pipeline. In the latest chapter of this drama, Utah’s Division of Water Resources and the Washington County Water Conservancy District requested an extended timeline to consider the 14,000 comment letters received during the pipeline’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) review.

One of those letters was potentially a fatal blockbuster. It threatened legal action from the other six Colorado River Compact states if Utah proceeds without consulting them. This is a major obstacle, forcing pipeline proponents back to the drawing board for the federal approval process and to the negotiating table with the other compact states. This will easily push the process well beyond 2022.

We have nothing to show after spending $40 million, other than glossy brochures, inadequate analyses, a promotional website and the prospect of another costly taxpayer-funded analysis.

There is a better path: improved management of our local water.

Effective municipal water conservation programs are becoming common in the west, and for good reason. They are more affordable and dependable than multi-billion-dollar infrastructures that move water long distances between watersheds. The smart alternative is to improve our local water management, leveraging conservation, re-use and efficient local supply management and delivery, driven by smart growth policies.

For example: In May, after decades of effort and $330 million, the Southern Nevada Water Authority abandoned the $15 billion Las Vegas pipeline, a project that would have transported water 300 miles from rural Nevada to Las Vegas. Some years earlier SNWA began an effective comprehensive water conservation program, and its success was a significant factor in abandoning the pipeline.

SNWA Board member Justin Jones stated that he thought the pipeline project began with good intentions, but “over the course of the past 30 years, it has become clear that the project does not make sense, either environmentally or economically.”

With an effective water management program such as the one implemented by SNWA, municipal water demand declines even as the population grows, opening enormous opportunities for sustainable water supply and reducing the need to build mega-water infrastructures like pipelines.

Others in Utah get it. The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District hired an engineering firm to assess the impacts of water conservation. Their report suggested it was reasonable to reduce water consumption to 173 gallons to 181 gallons per capita per day (GPCD), which would make the huge proposed Bear River Development Project unnecessary. Note that this strategy didn’t come from an environmental group; it came from an engineering firm well-known for large infrastructure projects.

Washington County’s residents average 303 GPCD. WCWCD plans to reduce that to 240 GPCD by 2040. This is hardly ambitious given that similar desert communities are already averaging 170 GPCD.

We doubt this weak-kneed and costly approach to water management will go unnoticed by newly nominated Secretary of Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, or Gina McCarthy, the new national climate advisor, as they deal with continued severe drought and wildfires in the West.

We must acknowledge the science of climate change and the severe demands being made on Colorado River basin water. We can and must make significant improvements to the management of our local water, supported by smart growth policies in Southwest Utah by initiating a comprehensive water management program. It is time to recognize that the Lake Powell pipeline is a relic that should be swept into the dustbin of outdated and unworkable ideas.

Art Haines

Bryan Dixon

Martha Ham

Art Haines is vice president and Bryan Dixon and Martha Ham are board members of Conserve Southwest Utah.