‘The need is there’: Officials take questions on proposed Lake Powell Pipeline

File photo of boat ramp at Wahweap Marina, Lake Powell, Ariz., August 2017 | File photo courtesy of Lin Floyd, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The second of two online meetings held to answer questions about the Bureau of Reclamation’s recent Lake Powell Pipeline draft environmental impact statement took place Thursday with attendees sending a flurry of questions to the BOR’s project manager.

Rick Baxter, Bureau of Reclamation Provo Area Office project manager, takes questions on the Lake Powell Pipeline during the second of two online public meetings held online, July 9, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation, St. George News

Over 100 people logged into the Bureau’s online meeting to learn more about the pipeline project and have questions about the recently published draft EIS answered by Rick Baxter, the BOR’s Provo Area Office project manager. In addition to educating the public about the project, the meeting was also held to encourage people to submit formal comments to the Bureau during the draft study’s public comment period which concludes Sept. 8.

Around 130 people attended Wednesday’s online meeting, Marlon Duke, a spokesman for the Bureau’s Upper Colorado Basin region, said as he started Thursday’s meeting.

Both Baxter and Duke said the meeting was held online due to coronavirus concerns and a desire to reach people who not have been able to participate otherwise.

Questions ranged from how the project was dealing with concerns related to potentially crossing into the Kaibab Paiute Reservation in Arizona and why conservation measures didn’t appear to have more consideration in the EIS, to issues related to climate change impacts on the Colorado River and more.

The Birch Canyon Water Line crosses the Virgin River in Zion National Park, Utah, June 4, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

Before getting to the Q-and-A portion of the meeting, Baxter gave attendees a rundown of the draft study’s findings related to the Lake Powell Pipeline, as well as the project’s development and status up to this point.

The project proposes to build a 140-mile pipeline between Lake Powell and the Sand Hollow Reservoir. Its purpose is to provide Washington County with a second source of water as state and local water officials say relying on the Virgin River Basin alone will not be sustainable moving into the future.

Washington County is projected to reach nearly 500,000 people by 2065. The Virgin River will not be able to support that great a population, officials claim.

The Bureau’s draft study supports that assessment, Baxter said.

“Population growth in Southern Utah has led water managers to addressing this issue,” Baxter said. “It necessitates the need for more water in the area.”

File image | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

That Washington County Water Conservancy District does have plans for ongoing and increased conservation efforts in connection with the pipeline, Baxter added as questions of why conservation alone wasn’t considered a viable alternative were asked. As to why conservation alone wouldn’t work, Baxter said you can only conserve so much when relying on a single source of water, especially when that community grows beyond that source’s ability to sustain it.

“The need is there,” Baxter said. “The most prudent water managers would prefer to have a second source of water available.”

Concerning the details of the water district’s conservation plans, Baxter said it was best to ask water district officials directly about what they were doing in that regard.

Baxter also told attendees that the Lake Powell Pipeline was a state project and not a federal one. While the Bureau of Reclamation was heading the permitting process for the project, it was officially impartial to the project in general, he said.

File photo of the Colorado River. | Photo by Roselie, Pixabay, St. George News

That answer came in response to questions asking why the Bureau was allowing Utah to dip into the Colorado River, a water source opponents of the pipeline say is already overtaxed and may not be as reliable a water source in the future due to climate change impacts.

Utah has a right to develop its share of the Colorado River as per the Colorado River Compact, Baxter said. It was noted, however, that Arizona and California have concerns about the project and the Upper Basin States’ ability to deliver Colorado River water to the Lower Basin.

“It’s something that is a continuing conversation,” Baxter said of the states’ concerns, adding that Bureau of Reclamation wasn’t going to get in the middle of it. “Utah is working on resolutions to their concerns,” he said.

As questions over climate change arose, Baxter pointed participants to consult the findings in the draft EIS that had incorporated several climate change studies within it.

This time last year, water officials held a public meeting touting the Colorado River’s overall reliability during both wet and dry seasons.

A graphic showing the proposed route for the Highway Alternative route for the Lake Powell Pipeline.| Image courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation, St. George News

Other areas of concern covered during the meeting were the proposed routes the pipeline itself may take. Two of the proposed routes, known as the Highway Alternative and the Southern Alternative, pass through Arizona.

The Highway Alternative follows a course along Arizona Highway 89 and cuts through the Kaibab Paiute Reservation. This poses the potential threat of disturbing land held sacred by the tribe, according to the draft EIS.

The Southern Alternative – the BOR’s preferred alternative – passes along the edge of the reservation, but also crosses into the Kaibab Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and presently would not allow the pipeline to be built through the area. In order to achieve this end, the BLM will need to amend its management plan for the Kaibab Creek area, Baxter said.

A graphic showing the proposed route for the Southern Alternative route for the Lake Powell Pipeline.| Image courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation, St. George News

While conversations with the Kaibab Paiute Tribe appeared to be gaining some ground earlier this year, negotiations concerning the pipeline were sidelined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Baxter said.

“It’s a sensitive, very sensitive topic,” he said. “We’re working with the tribe to create as little impact as possible. We’re trying to work through this process together.”

Brock Belnap, Washington County Water Conservancy District associated general manager overseeing the Lake Powell Pipeline, previously told St. George News that the water district wants to work with the tribe regardless of which alternative route may be chosen.

The public comment period for the draft environmental impact statement runs through Sept. 8 until 11:59 p.m. MST. The final EIS, which will incorporate input gathered from the public, is expected to be released near the end of November.

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