Red tape and water shortages stand in the way of Lake Powell Pipeline
In 2006, the Utah Legislature predicted Washington County would experience so much population growth it would need to build a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to provide residents with water. So, they passed a bill to construct the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Lawmakers were right about Washington County’s growth spurt. St. George has been ranked the fast-growing metro area in the nation, and that’s not projected to stop. Estimates place Washington County at more than 464,000residents by 2060.
It's been 17 years since the Lake Powell Pipeline project was announced and no ground has been broken, but Washington County officials still say it’s their long-term plan. The pipeline would cost an estimated $2.2 billion to build and pump a maximum of about 83,000 acre-feet of water over time.
Without the pipeline, “we believe that we can provide enough water to meet the growing demand of our community till somewhere around 2040,” said Brock Belnap, associate general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “After 2040, our existing supplies within the Virgin River basin will be tapped out as best as we can see.”
There are many reasons why Utah hasn’t started construction, but one of the most significant factors is the ongoing megadrought the entire West is experiencing. Combined with a severely depleted Colorado River (the main water source for Lake Powell), competing water interests from the seven basin states and layers of federal oversight, the project has struggled to make headway.
In 2021, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation told the lower Colorado River Basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) that they must cut their water intake from the river. Utah wasn’t forced to make cuts but has been called on to reduce its consumption. Negotiations on how much water each state gets are underway, and a deal could be reached as soon as 2026.
“We're basically waiting for clarity to come out from all of those different partners on the river so that we can make an assessment of how Utah's allotment will be used to supply the Lake Powell Pipeline,” Belnap said.
Utah’s current cut of the Colorado River pie is 23% of whatever is in the system, so the actual amount changes based on how much water there is.
And because the Colorado River Basin has been shrinking the last decade, Jane Whalen with Conserve Southwest Utahin St. George said Utah’s portion of water is going down every year, too. She said that “puts the pipeline in jeopardy,” because “Utah doesn't have as much water as they thought.”
To Whalen, there are too many unanswered questions about the future of Lake Powell for the state to consider the pipeline. In February, the lake hit a record low.
“It’s an uncertain water supply for the future,” Whalen said. “So why spend billions of dollars on a project that's so uncertain for the future?”
While the pipeline is still on the table, Belnap said it’s “going to be several years down the road” before it could become a reality, and there are other hurdles for the project to clear. Aside from water supply concerns, the U.S. Department of Interior needs to approve the necessary permits for construction.
When asked about where the permit applications stand, the department responded that they “don’t have anything to add on this [Lake Powell Pipeline] at this time.”
Belnap said it’s possible the looming 2026 conversation between Colorado River stakeholders could push the permitting process forward.
But Whalen finds the pipeline promise made to Washington County cities to be “disingenuous because it's going to be a long time before they work out agreements to take water out of Lake Powell.”
In the meantime, Belnap said the county is doing a lot to “preserve every single drop” of water.
It’s building water recycling and re-use facilities, will start tacking on a surcharge fee for excessive water consumption and has limited the amount of grass allowed on new developments. The conservation district also participates in a turf buyback program to encourage landowners to replace their thirsty grass with water-wise landscaping.
Karry Rathje, the communication manager for the Washington County Conservation District, said the grass removal rebates save “about 30 gallons per square foot on an annual basis.” The district has received over 800 applications for the program in about a three-month timespan, according to Rathje.
All those water-saving tactics, Rathje said, will save an estimated 11 billion gallons of water over the next ten years.
But even with all the conservation happening now, Belnap is preparing for 2040 when the county’s water supply could be tapped. If the Lake Powell Pipeline doesn’t happen by then, Belnap said the county will need to import water from outside the Colorado River basin.
“And if there isn't water brought in to sustain the growth in our community, leaders, the politicians and the citizens and the landowners will have to have very serious discussions as to what they're going to do.”