Lake Powell Pipeline: Unnecessary and Too Expensive

“Southwest Utah can meet future water needs through smarter planning. The proposed pipeline from the Colorado River represents outdated thinking.”

-Amelia Nuding, Senior Water Resources Analyst at Western Resource Advocates

Proposed Lake Powell Pipeline Not Needed

The proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would deliver 69,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell – a reservoir on the Colorado River – across 139 miles to Washington County, in southwestern Utah. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, demand for water in the Colorado River Basin – which includes Washington County – began to exceed water supply in 2000. This trend is expected to continue well into the future. New pipeline diversions and long-term drought are likely to exacerbate this problem of using more water than is replenished. As proposed, the Powell Pipeline may not be able to deliver the amount of water needed in the future, yet it would still pose a significant financial burden for Washington County water users.

Moreover, the water supply and demand figures that proponents of the pipeline claim justify the need for this pipeline are based on flawed and faulty figures.  In our report Local Waters Alternative Western Resource Advocates points out the numerous flaws in data and projections; in addition, a recent audit of the State’s Division of Water Resources revealed numerous problems with the way that water use data is collected and reported by local communities – including Washington County. The primary conclusions of that audit were “The [State] 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 Western Resource Advocates’ assertion that the data in Washington County do not prove a need for this pipeline.

1% a Year of Increased Water Conservation Would Go a Long Way Toward Meeting Future Water Needs in Washington County, Utah

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 similar Western cities use.  Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver and even Las Vegas residents use less water than Washington County residents.  A stronger focus on conservation in Washington County for new and existing residents, along with reuse and water transfers, should be pursued before more water is diverted from the Colorado River.

It is common in the West for communities – with even lower per capita water use rates than Washington County – to conserve 1% of their water 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.  Compare that with desert communities like Tucson, AZ, which uses 127 gallons per capita per day, and Albuquerque, NM, which uses 173 gallons per capita per day. If Washington County conserved at a rate of 1% per year, their water use would be 176 gallons per capita per day. The amount of water saved through conservation under the Local Waters Alternative WRA proposes 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 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 native plants, not bluegrass) and irrigation practices, for example, would go a long way in Washington County. Another popular tool for other Western counties is using water rate structures that reward water efficiency and ensure water wasters pay more.

When water reuse and agricultural water transfers are added in, the county will have more than enough water through 2060, as shown in the diagram below.


The Local Waters Alternative is Significantly Less Expensive

The Local Waters Alternative is estimated to be significantly less expensive than the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. The low-end cost estimate of the pipeline is $1.5 billion for Washington County, which includes construction, operation, and maintenance. In contrast, the Local Waters Alternative could 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, which is less financially risky than investing in one single, large pipeline project.

Using Water Just Because You Have the Right to is Outdated Thinking

One outdated argument for building the pipeline is that Utah does not use all of the water allocated to the state from the Colorado River. Many  proponents of the pipeline don’t like the idea that Utah isn’t using every last available drop that it is legally entitled to take from the Colorado River. But the fact of the matter is that more water has been promised to various states in the West than the Colorado River can actually provide.  Using the water just so another state’s downstream residents, farmers or fish won’t get it does not make sense. The Colorado River is a precious, shared resource, and given the present and future scarcity predictions, it needs to be managed more thoughtfully and collaboratively.

Washington County Utah Should Adopt a Plan Everyone Can Afford

Building a 139-mile pipeline is a lot more expensive, a lot more controversial and a lot more complicated than designing a well-crafted conservation plan for water users. 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 agricultural water transfers, it will result in a more sustainable water supply for generations to come. This is no substitute – it is the solution for securing Washington County’s future water needs.

Other Resources

The Local Waters Alternative to the Lake Powell Pipeline
The Local Waters Alternative report is an alternative solution for meeting the future water demands of Washington County, Utah, without the development of the Lake Powell Pipeline. The paper proposes greater water efficiency throughout Washington County, and demonstrates how, under the increased conservation scenario, local supplies can exceed demands by 20% in 2060 without the Lake Powell Pipeline. Local supplies include water reuse and agricultural water transfers. The Local Waters Alternative could cost about two-thirds less than the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

The Local Waters Factsheet
This factsheet provides a quick summary of the Local Waters Alternative to the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

Comment letter related to Lake Powell Pipeline preliminary license proposal process

Healthy Rivers Program

Colorado River Basin

Related Publications

The Local Waters Alternative to the Lake Powell Pipeline

by Amelia Nuding


Download Report

The Local Waters Factsheet


Download Factsheet

Project Staff

Amelia Nuding

Senior Water Resources Analyst