The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental impact statement for the Lake Powell Pipeline Monday, another step toward an official decision on the project that would move water from Lake Powell to Washington County.
The document considers the potential environmental effects of two routes for the 140-mile pipeline, as well as a “no action alternative.” The draft statement is part of the National Environmental Policy Act review, which will end with a decision on whether to go forward with the project in early 2021.
The preferred route — dubbed the Southern Alternative — would go around the Kaibab Indian Reservation. The Highway Alternative would follow the road that cuts through the reservation. Both start in Page, Arizona, and end at the Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County.
The document released is 313 pages long and is packed with more information in its appendices. Members of the public have until Sept. 8 to comment on it. Rick Baxter, the project manager for the pipeline, encouraged people who want to give their input to be specific.
“Although we’re happy to take comments from people who like or dislike the pipeline project, we would prefer that you give us something that we can take a harder look at,” Baxter said.
Proponents of the pipeline have said the variability of the Virgin River — Washington County’s main water source — will hinder growth in the county, which is projected by the Kem C. Gardner Institute to grow by 229% over the next 50 years.
Washington County Water Conservancy District is one of the project participants. Brock Belnap, the assistant general manager for the pipeline, said the draft EIS confirms these concerns.
“The [document] recognizes there is a need for the project in Washington County, it specifically finds that the project is needed to address shortages in the future as a result of our growth,” Belnap said. “They also say the purpose of having a second reliable supply is legitimate.”
Local environmental group Conserve Southwest Utah has long been against the pipeline. Instead, they are advocating for the county to better conserve water and look into water reuse projects.
Lisa Rutherford is a board member with the group and has been opposed to the pipeline for years. After just beginning to dig into the extensive draft statement, Rutherford said she reaffirmed her belief that it’s “unnecessary, costly and risky.”
“We have enough water here, in this area, to grow for a long time and not have to extend ourselves financially to do it,” Rutherford said.
The draft EIS projects the total cost of the preferred alternative would be between $1.89 and $2.01 billion. The water district has said the pipeline will be repaid through a mix of increased water rates, property taxes and impact fees.
The draft EIS states the county has the ability to pay off the project, as long as the population projections from the Kem C. Gardner Institute ring true.
Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel contends the numbers presented by proponents of the pipeline are inaccurate. He’s projected the pipeline will be closer to $3 billion, and will increase water rates in the county exponentially.
“This $3 billion boondoggle is being presented by lobbyists as a gift to Washington County,” Frankel said. “But it’s really a burden that comes with a 500% increase in water rates since cheaper water sources are being ignored by a corrupt state agency that wants taxpayer funding.”
The pipeline is open for public comment until Sept. 8. Those who wish to comment can do so online, via mail or fax. The Bureau of Reclamation will be holding virtual meetings to talk about the statement and collect comments at 6 p.m. on July 8 and 9. The draft EIS is available online here.