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Conservation groups push to get Utah water pipeline project canceled

A controversial proposed pipeline to carry Colorado River water to the southwest corner of Utah is under attack from conservation groups that are urging the federal government to cancel the project. 

The Lake Powell Pipeline would transport as much as 83,700 acre-feet of water per year from the Lake Powell reservoir to Washington County, Utah, through an approximately 140-mile buried pipeline under a project dating back to 2006 that has yet to commence.

Various financing options are under consideration for the pipeline, which is estimated to cost as much as $2.2 billion in 2020 dollars. Utah’s state treasurer has said state general obligation bonds and revenue bonds would likely be in the mix, along with federal funding. 

A 2015 view of Lake Powell near Page, Arizona. Plans to build a 140 mile water pipeline carrying water to Washington County, Utah, stir controversy.

Bloomberg News

In a letter this month to the U.S. Department of the Interior, conservation groups said the state of Utah and the Washington County Water District have spent at least $40 million on planning for the project, which stalled in 2020 when the six other Colorado River Basin states raised concerns it would exacerbate stress on already shrinking water supplies. 

“Each minute wasted on this pipeline sham comes at the cost of real solutions that the Colorado River’s communities and endangered fish desperately need for survival,” Taylor McKinnon, southwest director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “It’s time for the Interior Department to pull the plug on the Lake Powell Pipeline.”

The Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people in seven states, has seen water levels in its reservoirs drop in recent years due to drought conditions, leading the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to declare shortages. Storage in Lake Powell has improved this year with 8.62 million acre feet of water in November, compared to 5.72 million acre feet in November 2022, according to bureau data.

“The (pipeline) is incompatible with sustainable Colorado River policy, it is incompatible with the Bureau of Reclamation’s direction calling upon Colorado River Basin states to cut 2-4 million acre-feet from the system, and we believe the Bureau of Reclamation should not be permitting a project that would further reduce the Colorado River water supply,” the letter from nine conservation groups said.

They also noted that alternatives to the pipeline are being considered by the Utah county. 

The Washington County Water Conservancy District released a 20-year plan in July that said while the pipeline “remains a critical component for meeting Washington County’s long-term water supply needs, a number of recent hydrological, environmental, and political issues impacting the Colorado River Basin have introduced uncertainty regarding the timing and yield of that project.”

As a result, potential alternatives for future water supply, including enhanced conservation measures, were being reevaluated, it added. 

In response to emailed questions, Karry Rathje, a spokesperson for the pipeline, said the project’s environmental analysis is expected to resume once negotiations with Colorado River users over post-2026 operations conclude. 

“Utah will live within its hydrologic allocation, whatever that may be,” Rathje said. “The LPP will not exceed Utah’s share of Colorado River water.” 

Earlier this year, California, Arizona, and Nevada agreed to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water over the next three years with the aim of protecting the Colorado River system and the Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs from failing.

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