Monday, July 23, 2007
Washington County's Vision Dixie Exposes A Great Divide
The Vision Dixie process—primarily a series of public workshops designed to engage citizens of Washington County in a dialogue about managing future population growth in the county—is nearing completion. Workshop recommendations were recently announced and the resulting vision will certainly be a welcome sight to county residents who have grown weary of the recent pace of development and the many negative side effects that accompany such rapid growth. Other county residents and public officials who favor and enable current growth patterns will undoubtedly hope this vision soon fades into obscurity.
Why? Because the results make it abundantly clear a chasm of enormous proportions has opened up between most residents and the current pro-growth policies and practices promoted by many local and state officials.
For example, participants in the workshops were asked to select from four different future visions. Scenario A envisioned low-density growth outside of current city limits—a vision that would generate even more sprawl than current practice. Scenario B was a baseline reflecting current policy and practice. Scenario C envisioned growth around mixed-use centers or villages, along with greater preservation of scenic vistas and open-space, and improvements in public transportation. Scenario D envisioned downtown centers, tightly consolidated development, vista and open-space preservation and major investments in public transportation.
In a stunningly strong repudiation of current practice, only 11% of participants aligned themselves with Scenario B. A whopping 85% rejected current growth patterns and selected either Scenario C (52%) or Scenario D (33%).
Some public officials who favor facilitating rapid growth will undoubtedly claim there is little difference between current practice and the dominant future vision, but it should be clear to anyone who honestly analyzes the results that a super-majority of residents who participated in the process are pleading for leadership that does a better job of protecting scenic vistas, provides more open-space for both recreation and conservation, avoids the current practice of scattered development by building walkable communities, and invests in public transportation, including more bike trails and bus lines.
Disappointingly, the pro-growth spin machine is already in motion. Even before the results were officially released, a few local officials were quoted in a newspaper article characterizing the upcoming results as merely a confirmation of policy and practices already understood and in place. It’s true that some cities in Washington County have dabbled in some of the desired outcomes, but not anywhere near the extent envisioned by the Vision Dixie participants. Continuing with the status quo is clearly not what most residents had in mind.
It would be a shame if city, county and state officials attempt to minimize the divide, rationalize their pro-growth policies as concessions to inevitability and continue to plow full speed ahead with little or no change. After all, they are public servants and though many obviously disagree with the public they serve on issues related to growth, they have a duty to represent the public interest, not their personal interests, or the interests of only the business community. I suspect that most are well intended and honestly believe they have been representing the public interest. Unfortunately, they have failed to recognize that the tens of thousands of newcomers who have moved here in recent years have aspirations for the community far different from the aspirations that prevailed only a few years ago. And these out-of-synch views are reinforced by the fact that many local public servants continue to associate with a relatively small circle of longtime friends and business associates who think just as they do.
The Vision Dixie process should be taken as a real wakeup call by every public servant in Washington County. It’s clear that most residents want a change in course before the county is transformed into a sprawling mess. It’s time for every public servant in the county to do what they were elected to do and represent the public they were elected to serve.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
The Lake Powell Pipeline Redundancy Myth
A healthy public debate is underway in Washington County concerning the proposed construction of a water delivery pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George. Given the nature of such a large scale project—it will take several years to develop a viable engineering plan, obtain rights of way and solidify funding—this is a debate that will be waged over a long period of time. Long enough that oft repeated statements, whether true or not, can be transformed into misleading myths.
One such potential myth is already in the making. Advocates for the project, including state water officials and Washington County commissioners, have repeatedly claimed the pipeline is necessary to provide a redundant water source that would minimize the impact of drought and water shortages in southern Utah.
It’s a claim with great appeal in a region where many residents maintain redundant supplies of food and other necessities as insurance against either personal or public disasters. But such claims of redundancy for the pipeline are highly debatable. It’s an almost certain conclusion that every drop of water from Lake Powell would be allocated to supply new homes, not as a backup or redundant water supply for current homes or businesses. Why am I so certain of that conclusion? First, because according to state officials the pipeline would be financed almost entirely by impact fees assessed on new construction. Washington County officials will have an enormous incentive to encourage rapid growth to pay off the billion dollar debt that will be incurred in building the pipeline. And second, we know from experience local city and county officials in southern Utah already have a track record of encouraging growth. Imagine the growth they might encourage if they were on the hook to pay off a billion dollar debt that could only be paid off by filling a massive quota of 200,000-250,000 newcomers. It would make the current pace of growth seem like slow-motion.
Even though every drop from Lake Powell would be consumed by newcomers, you might think it’s still a good idea to have another water source. Then, if local sources were low and Lake Powell wasn’t—or vice versa—there would be another source to make up the shortfall. That would ordinarily make sense, but not in the unique case of Lake Powell. You see, Lake Powell is already a significant water source for several gargantuan metropolitan areas located far downstream: Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson. So if drought conditions arise in California, Arizona or Nevada, affected cities need to get more water from Lake Powell to make up the deficit. Thus any city that relies on Lake Powell is vulnerable to drought conditions not only in the Rocky Mountain region but throughout the entire southwest, greatly enhancing the probability of drought related water shortages.
There are constraints on how much water each region may take from Lake Powell, but if rationing becomes necessary it’s pretty obvious who would have priority. Washington County wouldn’t garner much sympathy competing for sustenance with Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Tucson. Besides the disparity in size and economic contribution, each of these cities is already dependent on Lake Powell and would undoubtedly expect and likely be granted priority because they got their buckets in the Lake Powell well first.
At that point, if Washington County had a bucket in Lake Powell that came up less than full, where would the water come from to support the 200,000-250,000 new residents brought in to pay for pipeline construction, who then require a full Lake Powell bucket to meet their water needs?
I hope this risky pipeline project is defeated so our children and grandchildren are not put in the unenviable position of having to answer that difficult question.