By Lisa Rutherford
On January 4, I drove past Royal Oaks Park at the corner of Snow Canyon Parkway and 1400 West, a park that is managed by the City of St. George. Sprinklers were going. It’s my understanding that no watering is needed this time of year, so what’s the city doing watering now? Clearly it’s all part of the water, water, water mindset that has this area and its leaders trapped in the focus to get more water for such silliness via the proposed 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline.
Our area has some of the highest, if not the highest, water consumption in the desert southwest. The water district’s manager, Ron Thompson, has noted in a couple of meetings I’ve attended that the district intends to identify the top water users in our area. What he will do once that’s done is yet to be determined. There’s little talk of putting pressure on them — just identifying. Will the City of St. George be among those identified? Will anything come of this? There certainly seems to be a divide between what the district is saying and what Washington County cities are doing. Watering when unnecessary costs taxpayers since that is non-revenue water. The cities pay for that water with our tax dollars.
Overwatering has resulted in problems that have economic consequences for individual home owners, too. Homeowners who live in areas such as Santa Clara where blue clay — expandable soil — is located and who are intent on having green, lush grass in spite of our hot summers water like crazy, only to find in some cases that they’ve sacrificed their home and foundation to cracks, all in the pursuit of green grass. It’s the history of greening this area that has led us to the alleged need for more water.
Maybe if we can slow the pursuit for additional water via the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, some of this silly behavior can be changed out of necessity. But at this point, plans for the pipeline are still being pursued, only at a slower pace due to a recent decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the licensing agency. Nearly $35 million has been spent by Utah on planning already, and with the National Environmental Policy Act’s environmental process beginning through FERC, much more will undoubtedly be spent. However, just this month FERC put the licensing on hold at the state’s request after FERC issued a warning in December that it is questioning its jurisdiction over 50 miles of the pipeline’s penstock (pipe). They have yet to make a final determination on the jurisdictional issue.
Other federal agencies are involved in this project too, and in early December, the Bureau of Reclamation held a contract negotiation meeting in St. George with the Utah Division of Water Resources and our water district to negotiate for a right to water from Flaming Gorge for the Lake Powell Pipeline. Yes, they do not even have the water rights secured for the project that’s been in the planning process for ten years! The BoR seemed to disappoint the state and district by wanting around $19 per acre foot of water (one acre foot is around 326,000 gals) for the proposed 86,000 acre feet of water the Lake Powell Pipeline would provide, which includes about 3,000 acre feet for Kane County. This is much more than the state and district want to pay and more than they’ve factored into their pipeline cost, which currently ranges from about $1.4 to $1.8. But the $19 cost per acre foot, which seems entirely reasonable to me, may be negotiated down in the future since the December meeting was only one of several meetings. In fact, the meeting seemed to be somewhat of a “love fest” between the BoR and the state. I felt like I was at a tennis match with compliments being lobbed back and forth in a neck-jerking fashion.
The BoR lead negotiator made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that public comments should focus on the contract under consideration rather than the need or lack of need for the LPP. It became clear once the comments began that those commenting, including St. George Mayor Pike and County Commissioner Renstrom along with many others, were not going to be held to that pesky requirement. They immediately launched into every conceivable reason why the Lake Powell Pipeline is necessary: it’s our water; we want our children and grandchildren to be able to live here; we will die on the vine without it; we need a safety net; we live in a desert and need more water; our pioneer ancestors developed water and, doggone it, so should we, etc.
It remains to be seen what the result of the negotiation for Flaming Gorge water for the Lake Powell Pipeline will be. I’m personally holding out for the BoR to keep the cost of the water high so that this project will continue to become unaffordable for our population. It’s clear to me after studying this project for ten years and reading the twenty plus state study reports that it is certainly unnecessary at this time and may never be needed. With the Colorado River flows being threatened by climate change, reliability is certainly an issue. Additionally, waiting until our population grows to a level at which payment may be more reasonable is a sensible thing to do while we wait to see if the water will even be there for us.
That brings me to the topic of John Fredell and the Southern Delivery System in Colorado.
John Fredell now heads the Lake Powell Pipeline project at the state level. I met Mr. Fredell at a November St. George Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting. He and Ron Thompson were there promoting the benefits of the project — as they see them. Prior to heading Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline project, John managed the Southern Delivery System (SDS) project in Colorado for El Paso County, the Colorado Springs area. It is the largest water system built in the 21st century in the western U.S. John overcame obstacles to get the SDS built and apparently has been brought to Utah, given his success in Colorado, to see if he can achieve a similar success here. But there are some key differences between the Colorado project — a 50-mile pipeline — and Utah’s project — a 140-mile pipeline. More than distance distinguishes the two. The population served and conservation efforts prior to undertaking the projects are key differences.
Colorado Springs, the largest city in Colorado’s El Paso County, grew to over 400,000 before taking on the SDS debt. Our county’s 160,000 population would be taking on a debt that could be several billions while getting little say in the arrangement. Our leaders say citizens have had a say by voting them into office. Most citizens will agree that our votes cover a myriad of issues. I’ve had many fiscally conservative Republicans tell me they don’t support the Lake Powell Pipeline. Although the state will carry the debt for us while we ease into needing the water – whenever that might be! – what other state needs will go unmet? The state admits in their October letter to FERC that they must be mindful of debt levels because of transportation projects and the prison relocation costs, with no mention of education, health care, and other costs important to the citizens of this state.
Simple math, though not precise, tells us that the $875 million, 50-mile SDS cost about $17 million per mile. Our proposed 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline is predicted to cost as much as $1.8 billion ($13 million per mile), but at $17 million per mile it would be $2.4 billion — without financing costs! How can a 140-mile pipeline that must lift water 2,000 feet over the Cockscomb cost less per mile than a 50-mile pipeline? Energy production along the way may help, but the real cost offset project — the pumped storage project — has had its entire cost ($660 million) loaded on Washington County with no state help; so it may never be built. It may be a red herring — used to help with the cost/benefit analysis to justify the Lake Powell Pipeline while posing little chance of being built or successfully producing the energy benefits even if it is built. For many of us, this makes the predicted cost look very suspect. It also does not include any new water treatment facility that would be needed.
The SDS, which began moving water in 2016 to 400,000 people, is not state funded. It is funded by the entities that receive the water. The water rate increases that were predicted in 2009 for the following seven years to pay for the SDS have not been quite as high as predicted, but how will that work in Washington County where we are facing a more expensive project and smaller population? Twenty-two Utah economists have run the numbers and say we can’t afford it. Already the 2008 prediction that impact fees for new development would pay for the project (growth will pay, as Ron Thompson asserted way back then) has been changed with more of the cost being placed on property taxes and water surcharges.
Perhaps most important, El Paso County’s conservation achievements preceded the SDS. According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Moving Forward 2015 report, Colorado Springs Utility’s conservation goal of 19 perent by 2050 is 149 gallons per capita per day (gpcd). They were using 172 gpcd in 1997 compared to Washington County’s 400 gpcd. Pipeline proponents say it’s difficult to compare usage in different areas, but our own water district did that in the late ‘90s with their Boyle Study that served to help justify the Lake Powell Pipeline when talks began. They compared our area to several other desert communities, not to show what stellar conservationists we were but to show that our usage demanded more water! Certainly with Washington County’s 2060 goal (a term I use loosely here) of 285 gpcd, something is off. Climate and other differences cannot make up for a 145 gpcd per day difference even if the SDS area gets 12 inches of water annually compared to our 8. Colorado Springs’ 450,000 population made great strides in water conservation before taking on a major project. Even with those conservation strides and the population growth, water rate increases are being experienced in their area.
Ceres, a nonprofit that advocates for business leadership on water and energy issues, has challenged the idea that water demand will continuously rise as an area’s population grows. “Demand” is the main focus of the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline, i.e. we are growing and thus must have more water. But Ceres’ research reveals that municipal water use in Western states has been falling over the past two decades even as fast-paced growth is the norm. Population growth does not necessarily equate to water delivery demand. For water managers such as ours and the new Lake Powell Pipeline leader Mr. Fredell to assume that it does while leading us down an expensive and unnecessary path does this state and our county’s citizens no favors.
Lisa Rutherford is an Ivins resident and advisor to Conserve Southwest Utah.
The viewpoints expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of The Independent.
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