Utah presses forward on pipeline despite strains on Colorado River

Gary Turner preps his turf-harvesting equipment for a busy day meeting the demand for sod in the growing St. George area. (Photo by Judy Fahys/KUER News)

Gary Turner peels off 2-by-5-foot strips of turf at his farm in Utah’s red rocks country. He says the land and the water rights are so valuable in this fast-growing area that he often gets offers for the property. (Photo by Judy Fahys/KUER News)

ST. GEORGE, Utah – The drive behind an enormous water project in southwestern Utah, the Lake Powell Pipeline, shows no signs of slowing even after the seven Colorado River Basin states signed a new agreement this spring that could force cutbacks and more conservation.

Despite the shrinking of the overtapped Colorado, four Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – are pushing forward with planned dams, reservoir expansions and pipelines that would allow them to capture what they were promised under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That agreement, which has been amended and added to for decades, reserves 7.5 million acre-feet for the Upper Basin and 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

Residents of Upper Basin states contend that Arizona, California and Nevada have been using “their” water for nearly a century.

President Donald Trump signed the basin-wide drought contingency plan in April, just weeks after Utah declared in a news release that the river, which serves 40 million people in the Southwest, is “a reliable source of water.”

“What they need to do, the lower states, is use their right that’s allocated to them and we will use our right that’s allocated to us,” said Mike Styler, who retired recently after 14 years as director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

If completed, the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline would draw about 86,000 acre-feet a year from the lake, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line. That’s enough water to support nearly 100,000 households in Utah’s burgeoning Kane and Washington counties.

Gary Turner, who grows turf on 114 acres in Washington City, said the project is needed to ensure the area’s continued growth.

“We absolutely have to have it,” he said as he prepared to harvest 42 pallets of sod for local customers. “I don’t know of any other option.”

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The houses and apartments that have sprouted up around Turner’s farm are evidence of a years-long population boom in southwestern Utah. The St. George area was the third-fastest growing in the nation last year, according to Census Bureau data released in April. Past data showed the area as the fastest growing in 2017 and the fifth-fastest growing from 2010 to 2018.

Pipeline proponents expect that growth will continue, from about 171,000 residents now to about 509,000 by 2065. That’s why they insist the $1.1 billion pipeline is necessary.

Turner irrigates his manicured green grass with water from the Virgin River, now the area’s sole source. He said pioneer-era water rights provide what he needs to maintain his turf farm, so he doesn’t need the pipeline to stay in business. But more water will be needed for the people expected to move to southwestern Utah and the lawns they’ll want, Turner said.

“We grow houses better than we can grow any other commodity,” he said.

The state has spent more than $30 million on its application to build the pipeline, which, according to LPP Utah, would include five pumping stations and six hydroelectric facilities to serve the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing the pipeline’s environmental impacts. The Washington County Water Conservancy District, a project partner, estimates that the license could be finalized in two years, construction would begin a few years later and the pipeline would be operating by about 2030.

But pipeline critics call the project too risky, too pricey and unnecessary. They contend that too much Colorado River water has already been promised to too many people; in addition, climatologists predict the vast basin will continue to get drier and warmer in the decades ahead.

“We are way beyond the budget of what the Colorado River can deliver, and when you just look at how much water is in the river and how much everyone else wants to take out, it’s just not there,” said Nick Schou, conservation director for the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council.

Schou said the Lower Basin states are facing cuts of as much as 500,000 acre-feet at the same time the Upper Basin states are planning nine projects that will draw about 400,000 acre-feet.

“Not only are we overusing the water, but there’s going to be a lot less to go around in the future,” Schou said.

Instead of a pipeline, opponents insist the smartest and cheapest solution is conservation.

Lisa Rutherford of Ivins, Utah, has been tracking the Lake Powell Pipeline for Conserve Southwest Utah. She and partner Paul Van Dam are among the project critics who say that conservation – not a billion-dollar pipeline – is the better answer to southwestern Utah’s water needs. (Photo by Judy Fahys/KUER News)

“We don’t think there will be the water,” said Lisa Rutherford, who tracks the pipeline proposal for the nonprofit Conserve Southwest Utah. “We do not think that we need the water.”

Rutherford said she’s worried that pipeline proponents will hinder sorely needed conservation efforts, which already are stymied by low prices for water in the St. George area.

A survey last summer by KUER compared what customers pay in other Western cities for 28,000 gallons of water, the average used by St. George residential customers in July. It was $111 in Las Vegas; $144 in Denver and $235 in Tucson. In St. George, however, the bill was $61.

The project’s overall cost is another big concern for critics. Proponents estimate the pipeline’s cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion. Critics say the price tag will probably be $3.2 billion or higher. And water users would be saddled with the cost because federal subsidies for big water projects, which once were plentiful, have evaporated.

Rutherford’s partner, former state Attorney General Paul Van Dam, said the roots of the controversy go beyond facts and figures. He said many Utah residents are convinced that Nevada, Arizona and California have been allowed to take precious resources that belong to Utah.

“That’s just absolutely almost part of the DNA of people out here,” Van Dam said. “And it’s just like treason if you don’t fight for the water that is your water.”

This story is part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.