ST. GEORGE – Negotiations between state and federal officials began Monday at the Dixie Center St. George looking to give Utah access to water from Lake Powell in exchange for some of its existing access to Colorado River water via the Green River in Wyoming.
The purpose of the exchange is to allow Utah the ability to draw water directly from Lake Powell for the Lake Powell Pipeline rather than drawing it from the Green River below the Flaming Gorge Dam.
Utah already holds water rights to Colorado River water under the Colorado River Compact, specifically to 23 percent of the available water supply in the upper basin, Karry Rathje, spokeswoman for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said. This equates to a yield of approximately 1.4 million acre-feet annually.
The proposed exchange has to do with the use of federal water facilities, Glen Canyon Dam rather than Flaming Gorge Dam, necessary to drawing the water.
“The state is proposing forbearing its use up on the Green River and its tributaries and allowing that water to flow down to Lake Powell where the state would pull it out for the Lake Powell Pipeline once that’s done,” said Marlon Duke, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Salt Lake City office.
Representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Utah Division of Water Resources and Washington County Water Conservancy District were gathered at the Dixie Center for the first of a series of meetings focused on hashing out what they called a water exchange contract. Additional meetings are slated to to be held in Salt Lake City.
“This negotiation is where we’ll sit down and talk about the details of what that exchange would look like,” Duke said.
Utah currently maintains rights to use nearly 159,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River under the Colorado River Compact, water that is not currently being utilized. The proposed contract would allow Utah to instead draw 86,249 acre-feet of that allotment from Lake Powell – which has the capacity to store 26.2 million acre-feet of water released through Glen Canyon Dam – for the proposed pipeline.
“With Glen Canyon Dam, we have the benefit of Lake Powell water always being there,” Rathje said, “and in addition we have the benefit of the lake water levels higher than the pumping from the river.”
Basically the state is negotiating with the Bureau of Reclamation to allow it to draw water it already has rights to at a new location. It is not a transfer or purchase of water rights.
Water released through the Flaming Gorge Dam flows into the Green River, down 400 miles of the Colorado River before reaching Lake Powell.
While supplying water for the pipeline, releasing the water also has an environmental benefit to it, said Ron Thompson, general manager of Washington County Water Conservancy District.
“(That) will augment flows that come down the river …,” Thompson said, “which is tremendously beneficial to hundreds of miles of native fish population habitat, some of which are endangered.”
There are also recreational benefits, Rathje said, offering an example: “You’re going to keep water in the river for more than 400 miles so … we have an avid fisherman who was very excited about the exchange because of the benefits it would yield in terms of recreational opportunities.”
While the augmented river flows are touted as one of the benefits of the exchange, they also help provide a future water source for southwest Utah.
Costs associated with the exchange were also a primary focus of Monday’s meeting.
The Bureau of Reclamation proposed that Utah pay $19 per acre-foot of water for use of the Glen Canyon Dam facility annually. State officials were hoping for a lower rate of possibly between $10-to-$15, as the overall amount will ultimately factor into the price county residents may be paying for water in the future.
The proposed $19 per acre-foot is nowhere near decided and may yet be reduced as both parties continue negotiations in subsequent meetings.
The cost is compensation to the United States for benefits Utah will receive from existing federal water facilities, Rathje said, again emphasizing that it is not a cost for the water itself.
During a public comment period held during the meeting, a number of locally elected officials stood up and asked federal officials to consider keeping costs down so it wouldn’t have an adverse effect on Washington County residents.
“In this situation I would ask that the United States government be very cautious about putting these rates too high,” Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said.
Others who addressed federal officials included the mayors of St. George, Santa Clara and Ivins. Each expressed their long-standing support for the Lake Powell Pipeline project as a whole, for which the exchange would help lay the foundation.
“Without the water rights being in a place you can take (the water) out, this project is meaningless,” Thompson said.
Ever-increasing growth and a need to diversify Washington County’s water supply are given as reasons why the Lake Powell Pipeline is needed.
“Every local city has a limited supply of water, most of which has been fully developed,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said.
The county’s current population is around 165,000 and is anticipated to reach 400,000 by 2060. State and county water officials don’t believe the Virgin River, the county’s only source of water, will be able to satisfy that increase – thus the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline.
“This is the most reliable water source in Southern Utah that we can tap into,” Renstrom said.
However, even with the pipeline, it will still be necessary to reduce water use, he said.
Washington County and its municipalities have engaged in water conservation efforts, Pike said, with Washington County winning a challenge set by Gov. Gary Herbert to cut water use by 25 percent years ahead of a 2025 goal.
“We still need additional water,” Pike said. “Water is the foundation of our quality of life and economic vibrancy.”
Opponents of the Lake Powell Pipeline say it is not needed and that Washington County already has enough water to satisfy future growth needs.
“I am a firm believer that we do not need the Lake Powell Pipeline in Washington County,” said Lisa Rutherford, a founding member of Conserve Southwest Utah. “Not now, and perhaps not ever.”
Rutherford said she has seen state and county water district studies that report current water resources can provide up to 98,000 acre-feet of water without the pipeline.
Opponents of the pipeline also say that Washington County is one of the driest metropolitan areas in the country and one of the most water-wasteful.
“We use far more water than other desert areas,” Rutherford said, adding that per-capita water consumption in Washington County is as high as 325 gallons per day. This a large amount when compared to other cities in the Southwest like Albuquerque, which is 127 gallons per capita daily.
County water officials have long disputed residents actually use that much water.
Rathje said that opponents of the pipeline are counting the overall water use within the county – which includes industrial and commercial uses along with residential use. The actual amount residents use, particularly in St. George which contains over half of the county’s population, is closer to 136 gallons per capita daily.
Monday’s negotiations concluded without a resolution on the potential cost of water for the Lake Powell Pipeline, a topic for future meetings.
Individuals who wish to offer feedback on the water exchange contract can email comments to [email protected].
The Lake Powell Pipeline project proposes to bring over 86,000 acre-feet annually to Washington and Kane counties via a 140-mile long pipeline. The pipeline’s current proposed route has it snaking from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County. Helping to move the water along will be six hydroelectric power stations.
The pipeline is anticipated to meet around half of Washington County’s water needs by 2060 when the population is projected to reach 400,000. Water conservation practices and additional development of current water resources will take care of the other half.
The pipeline proposal is currently being evaluated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It may soon initiate an environmental assessment study concerning the impacts the pipeline could have.
If all goes well and the project is approved, Thompson said, construction on the Lake Powell Pipeline could begin in the 2020s.
The water exchange contract between Utah and the Bureau of Reclamation would not be signed into effect until approval is given for the project.
Current estimates place the cost of the pipeline between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion, though that is subject to change depending on any changes made to the proposed project between now and its potential approval, county water officials have said.
While the construction of the pipeline will be advanced by the state, it is anticipated repayment will be made through costs added to impact fees, water rates and property taxes within Washington County.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.
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