ST. GEORGE – A bill passed by the Utah Legislature could put Southern Utah one step closer to building a controversial pipeline to bring water from Lake Powell to Washington and Kane counties.
The Water Infrastructure Funding bill, which passed the Utah Legislature in the 2015 General Session and was signed by Gov. Herbert Tuesday, creates a special account funded initially with $5 million from the state’s general fund and will be overseen by the Board of Water Resources.
“What Senate Bill 281 does is sets up a water infrastructure fund that would help fund very large, expensive projects such as Bear River Development, Lake Powell pipeline and repair and replacement of federal facilities where there is no federal money available,” Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said.
Funding for the projects, including the Lake Powell pipeline, could come from taxes or bonding, said Rep. Don Ipson, a sponsor of the bill; but no bonding authority was put in the bill.
“It (money) could come from any number of sources that was raised in the state, that’s the place to accumulate it,” Ipson said. “That’s simply all it is, is a place to house the money, and the authority to have the money for those purposes.”
Upfront costs for the large projects, which range in the billions of dollars, would be mostly paid for by the state. However the counties that benefit from the projects would have to repay the money over time, Millis said.
The proposed Lake Powell pipeline consists of about 139 miles of buried 69-inch pipe, which could bring up to 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Washington and Kane counties. The pipeline would carry water from Utah’s share of the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact.
Lake Powell pipeline status
State officials are now gathering information for submission to all of the federal agencies that would have to approve the project, Millis said.
“We are still in the environmental compliance process,” Millis said. “ We are hoping to get licenses and permits from the federal agencies sometime in early 2018.”
Permits are required from several agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Federal Highway Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“With that (finished), we would begin project design,” Millis said. “We would begin discussions with the Legislature about how the state might participate in helping to fund that project.”
If all goes as planned, construction could begin in 2020 and be completed in 2023, Millis said. “Right now, we’re estimating the need for the water is sometime between 2023 and 2025,” Millis said, based on the growth in Southern Utah, water availability and the water usage numbers.
The water would be pumped as needed, starting as low as 5,000-10,000 acre-feet per year. “That would ramp up over time as the population continued to grow,” Millis said.
If run at full capacity the pipeline could carry the full allocation of 86,000 acre feet of Colorado River per year, he said.
Opposition to the pipeline
While the pipeline is not a certainty, local and state officials are working towards that goal, including the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which has a web page on the project.
However, there has been much opposition expressed towards the the pipeline, and the projected need for it. Citizens for Dixie’s Future, the Utah Rivers Council and others argue the pipeline is not needed because population growth in Washington County has slowed, and water conservation efforts have not been fully explored. In addition, some advocate for a restructuring of the way consumers are charged for water.
“This is an elaborate and risky water project in a number of ways,” Utah Rivers Council Director Zach Frankel said. “Chief among them is that residents in Washington County are about to have billions and billions of dollars of debt placed upon their backs that will last for five decades, and require draconian increases in water rates, property taxes and impact fees.”
Very few elected officials in Southern Utah are talking about the billions of dollars of debt the project will place on ratepayers, Frankel said.
“Any resident in St. George, who is worried about their property taxes and water rates better tune in to what’s happening on the Lake Powell pipeline, or they will see their water rates go up by 300, 400 or 500 percent,” Frankel said.
Frankel does not believe that the pipeline is needed, and that future water needs could be met with conservation, and other methods. He proposes phasing out the property tax for water, which encourages waste by large institutional water users such as schools, churches and parks, who aren’t paying their fair share.
These large users are paying the same rate as homeowners, who also subsidize water rates with their property taxes, Frankel said. Homeowners are, in effect, subsidizing water costs for large institutional users, which eliminates the incentive to conserve water.
Frankel uses Las Vegas as an example of what can be accomplished by implementing a different water funding structure and encouraging conservation through programs such as rebates for grass removal.
“Why is Washington County not paying people to rip out their grass?” Frankel said.
The state estimates the pipeline will cost $1 billion dollars, Millis said, although others have estimated the cost as much higher, by the time the entire amount is paid off including interest.
At a public water forum in 2013, Mike Small, president of Citizens for Dixie’s Future, said interest on the $1 billion project would actually make it $4 billion instead.
The state would supply the majority of upfront costs, Millis said, but the money would be repaid as the water is needed and used.
“Somebody’s got to pay for it,” he said, “and that would ultimately come to the people that use the water.”
The Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act of 2006 specifies that the state would pay most of the upfront costs of the project, with Washington and Kane counties contributing, Millis said.
Any money contributed by the state would need to be repaid over time through the purchase of water by the two counties’ water conservancy districts.
The repayment period as written in the bill can be up to 50 years, Millis said, but the counties would only pay for the water as it is required, until the debt is paid off.
What would happen if the population estimates don’t come true, and Southern Utah never needed the full amount of the water?
“Those are good questions that we don’t have answers to, at this point,” Millis said. “We will look at a reasonable demand curve for the project, and base a repayment program around that, to get it to stay in the 50-year period.”
Millis said a preliminary licensing proposal will be issued by the state this summer, and it will be a public document that agencies and the public can comment on.
In January of 2016, the division plans to submit a formal licensing application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and that’s when the National Environmental Policy Act process begins. NEPA requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. Public input is part of the NEPA process, Millis said.
- Washington County Water Conservancy District Lake Powell Pipeline web page
- Citizens for Dixie’s Future Lake Powell Pipeline web page
- CIRPAC – Community Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee web page
- Upper Colorado River Basin Compact
- Utah Rivers Council
- Last continues focus on education, Lake Powell Pipeline, transparent government
- ON Kilter: Analyst or advocate; examining the Lake Powell Pipeline
- Water district says quagga mussels don’t jeopardize Lake Powell Pipeline
- CIRPAC meeting on conservation, Lake Powell pipeline
- Economic impact of water stability discussed at water district CIRPAC meeting, 2013
- Lake Powell Pipeline dominates water forum, 2013
- The Lake Powell Pipeline continues to polarize, 2011
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