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.