By Comparison, Smart Water Alternatives Would Ensure Sustainable Water Supply and Save Residents Money
In 2006, the Utah Legislature proposed to build a pipeline to serve Washington and Kane counties at the urging of local leaders who said they feared water shortages would stifle the region’s rapid growth. But the proposal was not driven by a strategic plan; in fact, analysis by Western Resource Advocates and others shows the proposal is based on faulty accounting and an unrealistic estimate of the amount of water needed to meet local demands.
WRA has a long history of advocating for smart water alternatives for the Western United States. As explained in WRA’s Local Waters Alternative, water conservation, water reuse, and agricultural water transfers, together, offer the best opportunity to ensure a sustainable water supply for Utah’s Washington and Kane counties.
In 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers told the state of Utah it should consider WRA’s Local Waters Alternative in its planning. Soon thereafter, the State dropped its application at one federal agency (FERC) and re-started with another (the Bureau of Reclamation). In early 2020, the Trump administration said it would fast-track this misguided proposal.
WRA’s analysis has shown that Utah can choose a more sustainable path and save its taxpayers’ money without posing an unnecessary risk to our public lands and the health of the Colorado River. Here’s a look at how:
What is the Lake Powell Pipeline?
The proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would deliver 86,000 acre-feet of water each year from Lake Powell – a reservoir on the Colorado River – across 140 miles to Washington County, in southwestern Utah. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, demand for water across the Colorado River Basin – which includes Washington County – began to exceed the Basin’s water supply in 2000. And new pipeline diversions and long-term drought are likely to exacerbate this problem of using more water than the river can provide.
The Lake Powell Pipeline Proposal Relies on Faulty Data
According to an analysis by Western Resource Advocates, the Lake Powell Pipeline as it is currently proposed would require Washington and Kane county water users and likely taxpayers all across Utah to foot a very large bill for the pipeline; in the autumn of 2019, construction costs were estimated to be as much as $1.7 billion. Not only that, pipeline diversions would make it more likely that hydropower generated by Lake Powell would decrease, and put other water users across the Colorado River Basin at risk.
One of the biggest concerns WRA and many others have with the proposal is that the water supply and demand figures that proponents of the pipeline rely upon to justify the need for this pipeline are based on flawed and faulty figures. As WRA’s Local Waters Alternative report points out, the numerous flaws in data and projections have not been fully addressed. Indeed, a 2015 audit of the State’s Division of Water Resources by Utah’s Legislative Auditor General revealed numerous problems with the way that water use data are collected and reported by local communities – including Washington County. The primary conclusions of that audit were “The [Utah] Division [of Water Resources] Does Not Have Reliable Local Water Use Data,” and “We [the Division of Water Resources] Question the Reliability of the Division’s Baseline Water Use Study.” The state’s findings corroborate WRA’s conclusion that the water use data in Washington County do not prove a need for this pipeline.
A Combination of Municipal Conservation, Reuse and Agricultural Water Transfers can Meet the Water Needs of Washington County through 2060
Washington County has one of the highest per capita water use rates in the West – more than double what many other western cities use. Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Denver residents use less water. A stronger focus on conservation in Washington County for new and existing residents, along with reuse and water transfers, provides an incremental way to meet new demands, instead of diverting more water from the Colorado River in a project estimated to cost as much as $1.7 billion.
Many Western communities with even lower per capita water use rates than Washington County commonly conserve an additional 1% each year. But Washington County’s conservation plans outline a goal to save water at only about half that rate. Based on their data in 2010, water use was estimated to be 241 gallons per capita per day by 2060 (forty years from now). The more recent 2019 Utah’s Regional M&I Water Conservation Goals report sets a goal for Washington County only slightly lower, at 236 gallons per capita per day by 2065. Compare that with desert communities like Tucson, which already is as low as 116 gallons per capita per day, and Albuquerque, which uses 128 gallons per capita per day. If Washington County conserved at a rate of 1% per year, its water use would drop to be 185 gallons per capita per day by 2065.The amount of water saved through conservation under the Local Waters Alternative amounts to 42,500 acre-feet per year by 2060 – more than 60% of what the proposed Powell Pipeline is proposed to deliver.
Proven, Cost-Effective Alternatives Make the Lake Powell Pipeline Unnecessary
Many communities in the West have shown how effective water conservation and reuse are for maintaining a high quality of life at lower cost. Basic changes to outdoor landscaping (think more native plants instead of Kentucky bluegrass) and irrigation practices, for example, would go a long way in Washington County. Another popular tool for other counties in the West is using water rate structures that reward water efficiency and ensure residents who use lots of water pay more per gallon, to reflect the pressure they put on the water delivery system.
Adding water reuse and agricultural water transfers to that savings, Washington County would have more than enough water through 2060, as shown in the diagram below.
The figure above illustrates the synthesis of the Local Waters Alternative, with water demand represented by the yellow line and the variety of water supplies represented by the colored blocks and wedges.
The Local Waters Alternative is Significantly Less Expensive than the Lake Powell Pipeline
Project proponents’ cost estimates for the pipeline are up to $1.7 billion. In contrast, the Local Waters Alternative might be implemented for as little as one-third of the cost of the pipeline. The estimated conservation costs include water utility administration, rebates, educational programs, and customer expenses associated with purchasing water-efficient appliances or materials. Reuse costs include the construction, operation, and maintenance of a reuse water treatment facility, and water distribution costs. Agricultural water transfer costs reflect the cost to purchase water rights. By investing in these local supplies, Washington County would maintain the flexibility to pursue additional water supplies in an incremental fashion as new demands arise, which is less financially risky than investing in one single, large pipeline project.
The Lake Powell Pipeline would increase risk for other Colorado River water users
Some state and local leaders argue that the Lake Powell Pipeline would develop Utah’s Colorado River “allocation.” But the reality is that allocations in the Upper Basin states are not fixed in stone, and are declining over time. Collectively, the states tapping into the Colorado River demand more than it can actually provide.
Moreover, the Trump administration’s move to fast-track the project comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Colorado River. The move could potentially impact water rights all across the Colorado River Basin and greatly complicate the multi-state effort to prevent devastating shortfalls in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Colorado River is an overstressed and shared resource, and given the predictions that the river will continue to be over-allocated and stressed by increasingly dry conditions, the Basin states need to manage it thoughtfully and collaboratively to ensure there is enough water for everyone into the future.
Washington County Should Adopt a Plan Everyone Can Afford
Building a 140-mile pipeline is a lot more expensive, a controversial, and complicated than designing a well-crafted, multi-pronged plan to meet new water demands.
The Local Waters Alternative provides a flexible and cost-effective pathway for Washington County to meet water needs through the year 2060. Water conservation is the key component of this alternative. When combined with increased reuse and agricultural water transfers, conservation will result in a more sustainable water supply for generations to come. This is the solution for securing Washington County’s future water needs.