A southern Utah city plans to pull additional water from the Colorado River, but the move amid a historic drought has left some concerned.
A 140-mile pipeline approved by the Utah Legislature would serve St. George, a fast-growing city of nearly 90,000 people — up from fewer than 75,000 a decade ago.
A new “straw” into the river would increase demand on the Colorado River system, even as federal officials deal with a shrinking Lake Powell, which would be the source of the pipeline.
Concern over the pipeline and other proposed water projects led environmental groups to recently create a coalition to oppose efforts to take more water from the river.
The head of the water agency serving St. George says growth there is so strong that additional supplies are needed along with conservation efforts.
“We were actually the first community in Utah to meet the governor's goals for water conservation; we've reduced our water use here per capita by 30 percent,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “Then looking at the number of individuals that are moving to their community, it just came clear that we needed additional sources of water for this area, even with our conservation measures.”
The head of one of the groups opposing the pipeline says it is the product of outdated thinking.
“The Lake Powell pipeline is coming from an era of denial of climate-change facts,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. “These water districts are government agencies, and Utahns are overwhelmingly fiscally conservative, but they're not proposing fiscally conservative options for our future, which is water conservation.
“They're proposing the costliest most elaborate and fantastical water projects. I mean, the bottom line that we should be asking is, does Washington County really need more water?”
Among the organizations opposing the pipeline is the Imperial Irrigation District in California, where the agriculture industry has secured some of the most senior water rights on the river.
“In the case of the Imperial Irrigation District, we're the largest user on the Colorado River, but we also produce almost all of the fruits and vegetables that you eat,” said John Brooks Hamby, a director for the irrigation district.
He said the district has reduced its water usage by 20 percent over the past two decades, and other water users need to focus on conservation over additional infrastructure.
“Across the Colorado River Basin, right now, we need to start to preparing prepare to live with less. And we simply just can't build to take more away from an already depleted river,” Hamby said. “And just to put a finer point on that, I think, really, the situation now is that going out for seconds on the Colorado River doesn't make sense when all Colorado River users are going to be needing to go on a diet.”
Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said a desire for the most efficient use of the river led environmental groups like his and commercial users like the irrigation district to join forces and oppose the proposed pipeline
“I think why we're all coming together is this is about wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars and the terrible use of a precious resource,” he said.
Roerink called the proposed pipeline “a boondoggle,” and said Utah water officials could learn from Las Vegas, which has embraced conservation and recycling after conceding defeat on a controversial plan to pipe water in from rural Nevada.
“One of the things that we advocated for in fighting to defeat the Las Vegas water grab was conservation, and we said that conservation can work,” Roerink told State of Nevada, “and Las Vegas has shown that it does work.”
Construction is years away for the St. George pipeline project, with a completion date set for 2035.
Zach Renstrom, general manager, Washington County Water Conservancy District; Kyle Roerink, executive director. Great Basin Water Network; Zach Frankel, executive director, Utah Rivers Council: John Brooks Hamby, director, Imperial Irrigation District
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