As the western U.S. grapples with record drought, legislators around the Colorado River Basin are weighing plans for a project that would divert water away from this already-strained natural resource to Southwest Utah, home to people critics call some of “the most wasteful water users in America.”
“The Lake Powell pipeline is so stupid. It’s such a bad idea,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, which has vocally opposed the project. “This is one of the stupidest projects proposed anywhere in the United States.”
“It's a pipeline that is trying to take water that isn't there to people who don't need it,” John Cyran, senior staff attorney in the Western Resource Advocates Healthy Rivers program, said. (Cyran notes that a large proportion of residents in Southwestern Utah are retirees who’d be using the water for needs that are frivolous in a megadrought—golf greens and ornamental grasses top the list.)
And yet Washington County, Utah is plodding along with its decade-plus long push to build the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline, which would move 83,756 acre feet of water per year to 10 communities in southwest Utah from the Colorado River, even as it reached shortage-level lows last week. Utah believes it is able to do this under the terms of a six-state agreement signed almost 100 years ago called the 1922 Colorado River Compact, before climate change and mass development drastically changed the environmental situation on the ground.
The agreement split up the river basin into two zones: the Upper Division (split between Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Division (shared by Nevada, Arizona and California). The language of the compact says that the water is to be “apportioned from the Colorado River System in perpetuity” according to the agreement. The Compact affords Utah 23 percent of the water from the Upper Basin, of which it currently only uses 72 percent. The Lake Powell pipeline would allow the state to take the remaining amount the compact gives it rights to.
Pipeline opponents note that the compact was written in a different era—one where the Colorado River wasn’t reaching dangerous lows.
“Relying on the hydrology from 99 years ago is totally misguided,” Cyran said. “We're gonna try to continue to rely on that compact as long as we can, because we don't have anything better. But we’ve got to rely on the compact in light of the high new hydrology—the new abnormal.”
The Washington County Water Conservancy District believes the plan is essential to serve the needs of the region’s growing population. Building out its access to water will help protect the area from a continuation of the “16 years of drought” it’s experienced over the last two decades, according to the Lake Powell Pipeline website.
But neighboring states and Utah jurisdictions, all of which have experienced similar drought over the last twenty years, believe the county is hoarding dwindling water resources that the entire region must make sacrifices to share. Approximately 40-million people rely on the Colorado River for their livelihoods, and years of drought have left many of them with no choice but to ration their day-to-day water use.
The Colorado River Basin has seen its annual water levels drop by 20 percent over the last century due to climate change, as Lake Mead, a reservoir on the River that supplies water and electricity for some 20-million Americans, hit historic lows in June. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which regulates use of the River, declared a shortage on it last week, forcing water cuts across Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Critics like Cyran believe the southwest region of Utah uses more than its fair share of water: approximately three times that of neighboring cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver, according to data compiled by Utah Rivers Council, a non-profit devoted to protecting Utah’s rivers and ecosystems.
“If you look at a reasonable assessment of the needs of Washington County, you see that this water isn't needed,” Cyran said.
Water officials from the six states with whom Utah shares the River Basin joined forces last September to ask that the Bureau of Reclamation pause the environmental impact review process required for the pipeline’s permitting until all seven states reached consensus on the project. Their letter threatened litigation, alleging that Utah was attempting to skirt a web of complex legislation that governs the use of the river—called the Law of the River—to get the pipeline pushed through. The pipeline’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was completed under the approval of the Trump Administration, but federal legislators have recently acknowledged that the plan failed to account for conservation as a meaningful alternative to building out new water infrastructure. (The BOR is now working on a supplemental EIS to account for alternatives to the pipeline, after which point the project will move into approval stages.)
But the Powell Pipeline plans remain wildly unpopular as drought ravages the west. Last month, a coalition of local government bodies, representatives and environmentalists from across the River Basin staged a protest at Hoover Dam to ask the federal government to place a moratorium on all dam and diversion projects along the river, including the Pipeline, that they deem wasteful.
Frankel hopes the coming months will see the pipeline scrapped in favor of meaningful conservation projects, which he says have historically been unfavorable in his state under a strong lobbying force from the water development industry. He says he’s advocated for a number of water conservation bills over the last 20 years that he believes would have prevented today’s level of water loss in the Colorado River, all of which have failed because of “special interests.”
Even some Southwestern Utah residents who are likely to benefit from the project oppose it, Frankel says, because it would raise their water bills substantially. Developers have proposed raising rates to cover up to $1.8-billion in pipeline costs, should it be approved, which the Utah Rivers Council websites says will go primarily to “watering lawns.”
Western Resource Advocates has proposed an alternative proposal to the pipeline that would employ “common-sense conservation measures” to meet Washington County’s water needs without relying on uncertain water levels in the Colorado River. Expanding wastewater reuse infrastructure, improving excess water storage systems, and limiting water use to reasonable levels in the region would all make more sense than depleting a natural resource that’s already at risk, the proposal argues.
“What's at stake to me is whether we're going to continue to rely on old, antiquated methods of solving our resource problems or we're going to actually accept that we’re in a different world, where you can't just build a pipeline to the Colorado River, and hope it's going to provide you water,” Cyran said. “We can't solve our 21st century resource problems by trying to take water that isn't there.”