Southern Utah is booming, and there’s no question as to why. With 300 days of sunshine, and a handful of breathtaking State and National Parks no more than a few hours away, it is quickly morphing into a desert oasis for anyone looking to escape big city life. However, it may not be the oasis we know much longer, because Utah simply doesn’t have enough water. Although many Utah lawmakers push the Lake Powell Pipeline as the last hope to provide water for the tens of thousands of citizens in the Southern Utah area, the reality is there are plenty of less destructive, less expensive, and more environmentally friendly options available for Utahns to choose.
It’s no surprise that a giant pipeline sprawling approximately 140 miles comes with an equally giant price tag. On top of the estimated $34 million of state funding for studies about the pipeline alone, the final estimation of the pipeline sits between a cool $1.3 billion and .
8 billion, hardly considered pocket change by even federal funding standards. In one letter to the Utah House of Representatives, a group of professors from the Department of Economics at the University of Utah break down the actual cost for the citizens of Utah. First, they calculate that depending on the final cost of the pipeline, the debt would be equivalent to $369-$781 every year for every man, woman, and child living in Washington County (Berik and Blattenberger). The letter further discusses that at the highest estimated cost of $1.8 billion, the state of Utah would have to raise impact fees to an average of $14,514 per connection, raise water rates by 678 percent, sell 1200 acres of land owned by the District, and collect property taxes at the maximum rate allowed by the state in order to raise the funds in time to meet the anticipated 50 year loan deadline.
(Berik and Blattenberger). With rates so high, the professors shrewdly point out that the likelihood of anyone being able to afford water would be very slim, effectively rendering the pipeline useless.
Even if the state of Utah decides that a $1.8 billion dollar project is worth it, experts say that securing the loans for the project will be an enormous feat on its own because the repayment relies on residents that don’t exist. Lawmakers based the repayment plan on the Washington and Kane county residents expected in the area using past growth rates and future projections, which experts predict will reach half a million by 2060. Currently Washington and Kane county residents have a population of around 172,000 combined. It’s far too risky to plan almost two billion dollars on “potential” residents.
If Southern Utahn’s want to keep their standard of living without having to pay an abhorrent about of money for an unnecessary pipeline, then they must look towards conservation. To Washington County’s credit, they have come a long way. The City of St. George has switched to using non-culinary (undrinkable) water for the watering of all city properties, schools, and golf courses. In addition, they offer rebate programs for those living in older homes to upgrade to more efficient appliances (Guzman). Many residents have also opted for “desert” landscaping, completely eliminating lawns and the need for watering them, a popular method in drier climates throughout the west.
Despite these efforts, they are just the tip of the iceberg. The local government needs to create more incentive for its citizens to conserve water. One of the easiest and most inexpensive ways to do this is by implementing penalty rates. Currently, no such program exists for residents in St. George, although residents are charged differently based on the size and purpose of their water meters (Guzman), Penalty rates would raise the price of water after a resident exceeds the allotted amount of water per month, and would encourage residents to be more conscientious of their usage. Penalty rates are a tactic that has been adopted by cities like Tucson, Arizona to great success (Nuding). If a city that has a hotter, drier climate, with a population nearly two and a half times the size of Washington County and Kane County combined, then surely it’s something that can be adopted in the comparatively small Southern Utah area.
It isn’t enough to simply penalize residents for going over a reasonable water limit; the local governments must put forth more time and effort into finding cost-effective and innovative ways to conserve, and then they must commit to a plan. The 1% Conservation Plan, proposed by Amelia Nuding with the Western Resource Advocates, is an effective and inexpensive plan that is predicted to bring water demand under estimated future supplies. The plan, which is freely available to anyone online, is a commitment to reduce water usage by 1% in per capita future demand every year, based on the previous year’s per capita use (Nuding). The plan was written with the timeframe of 2010 through 2060, a total of fifty years. It is easily adjustable to start in 2019. By their estimates, the plan would result in a 40% reduction at the end of the fifty years. A reduction of nearly half might seem daunting to some, but the group reassures that the predicted numbers have already been achieved or surpassed by numerous cities in the west today.
Although the Western Resource Advocates do touch on the benefit of applying penalty rates, they also emphasize the importance of water meter data. Having accurate and reportable meter data throughout the county would help residents understand how much water they use, and then compare it other people in the area, making them aware of any possible overuse on their part. One particularly telling example is the water savings achieved in Denver, Colorado in 1994. After the installation of the meters, there was an estimated 44% in water savings (Nuding). Meters don’t only have to apply for residential uses, they can also be used to catch water leakages and stop them before they cause too much loss. Furthermore, water loss management has a high rate of cost effectiveness in that it not only saves energy that would be lost pumping the lost water, it reduces non-revenue water (water treated by the city but no one pays for). It would also be ideal if the county metered secondary water as well, which would help generate more data to help identify areas that could be improved upon. At this time, the City of St. George only offers rebates for meter monitoring, but does not make it mandatory (Guzman).
With all of the expected growth in Southern Utah, there are many new development plans in the works. Recently, it was announced that Desert Color, a 6,800 acre master-planned community had been approved by the City of St. George for construction. Along with adding 10,000 new residences to the community, it is set to feature shopping spaces, schools, health facilities and resort style condos to draw in tourists from all over the west (Scott). Many people voiced concern in the community about the added burden of additional residences and recreational features would put on the already packed city, especially since the main focal point are two large man-made lakes. One has to admit that it sends a very hypocritical message to bring such high maintenance landscaping and unnecessary lagoons into a city that is struggling to supply its existing residents with water.
Aside from the more traditional methods of conservation, there are many creative and unusual tactics that can be applied to water conservation efforts. One very interesting example is that of the tamarisk, a non-native shrub that grows along the Colorado River. Studies have found that the plant is literally drinking thousands of gallons of water, creating a noticeable loss in water that is seriously needed downstream (Committee). It would be relatively inexpensive to pursue their removal as a form of conservation, yet it has not been seriously considered by any lawmakers.
Apart from the fact that Utahns should be conserving water, not just finding new ways to use more, an outdated belief that because Utah technically owns the water, there’s nothing wrong with exhausting 100% of what is available, is hindering our progress. Currently, Utah is using 73% of legally owned water available from the Colorado River, the Lake Powell Pipeline would use another 6% (Lake Powell Pipeline). It is unethical that such a large project with such a small percentage of water return is being packaged into an almost $2 billion pipeline, for which Utahns will have to foot the bill. It is also unreasonable for Utah lawmakers to assume that the Colorado River will be able to sustain any more usage than its already bearing.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, demand for water in the Colorado River Basin began to exceed water supply in 2000 (U.S. Department). If the only solution that lawmakers can come up with is to continuously take, what would stop them from taking another 6% in ten years? If conserving unused water for Utahns isn’t enough, then perhaps if they knew just how many people actually relied upon the Colorado River’s waters it would relay the importance of its survival. The Colorado River spans roughly 1,400 miles, seven states, and even two countries, with its end reaching through Mexico. It’s estimated that 30 million people rely on its shores to sustain their way of life (Birdsong). If the focus remains simply on using and not conserving, it’s only a matter of time until Utahns dry up the leftover supply, leaving them with no skills to conserve what they have, and nothing else to turn to.
It’s also crucial for everyone to understand the legalities surrounding the water in the Colorado River. As mentioned before, the river spans across several U.S. states and divides them into Upper and Lower Basins, with each receiving 7.5 million acre-feet of consumptive use per year in perpetuity. Additionally, the Lower Basin receives an extra one million acre-feet per year. To ensure that the Upper Basin allows enough flow to the Lower Basin, they are required to allocate 7.5 million acre-feet into their jurisdiction (Birdsong). The Upper Basin states are comprised of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico with the Lower Basin consisting of California, Nevada and Arizona. It is also important to note that the legal rights to the waters of the Colorado River were signed away in the Colorado Compact almost 100 years ago, in 1922. Some of the largest cities in the west, like Las Vegas, which was still a small Mormon pioneer settlement, were largely unheard of. Certainly they weren’t taken into account when the states were dividing up the water rights.
All in all, the Lake Powell Pipeline is too large of a step to take at this time. It is far too expensive to be considered in a time of massive national debt, and much too destructive to be considered during a time when natural resources are disappearing. With so many other avenues to explore, it simply doesn’t make sense to jump to the biggest solution that engineers can dream up. It’s time to look into smarter ways to conserve, smarter ways to use, and smarter ways to treat our environment.