ST. GEORGE — Kane County water officials have long said their county needed the Lake Powell Pipeline to keep up with expected demand.
But in a surprising shift last week, the county withdrew from the project that would transport water 140 miles from Lake Powell to Southwest Utah.
The reversal reflects a new understanding of the county’s population projections and existing water supplies, according to a Thursday press release from nearby Washington County Water Conservancy District. The verdict: Kane County has enough water for the foreseeable future without the pipeline.
The conclusion contradicts the findings of a 2016 water needs assessment prepared for the Utah Division of Water Resources. The report indicated that the Kane County Water Conservancy District’s reliable water supply would be in deficit by 2035 and pointed to the pipeline as the solution.
But none of this means the project is slowing down.
The proposed pipeline is still undergoing a one-year review process overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which has said that Kane County’s exit has not affected the timeline for the draft environmental impact statement it expects to release this summer.
The bureau took over as the lead agency on the project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in October after Utah removed hydroelectric components from the pipeline’s design.
Although Kane County has bowed out of this round of the project, it could still connect to the pipeline in the future, said Mike Noel, the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District and a longtime pipeline advocate.
“It’s definitely going to be something we need in the future,” he said, referring to spill-over he expects to come from neighboring Washington County. “We would be remiss if we didn’t plan for the next 50 years and even beyond for the growth that’s going to occur in Kane County.”
The revised design has removed a 10-mile spur that would have carried water from the pipeline northward to Johnson Canyon in Kane County. However, a “T-joint” will likely be included where the junction would have been built, giving the county the option to tap into the resource at a later date.
But doing so won’t be simple, said Rick Baxter, the project lead for the pipeline at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“As they’ve officially pulled out, anything they would want to do moving into the future would require additional and new NEPA on Kane County’s part,” he said, referring to the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
The 4,000 acre-feet per year that Kane County would have used will now do one of two things, Baxter added: stay in the Colorado River or become available for use in the Washington County service area if population projections change.
For the project’s critics, Kane County’s withdrawal is a small but significant victory.
“It was always clear that Kane County didn’t need any of the water from the Lake Powell Pipeline. Any claims to the contrary were just bluster and marketing hype,” said Zachary Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City that promotes sustainable water use in the state.
The council has been a staunch opponent of the pipeline, maintaining that the infrastructure project is unnecessary and would place a burden on Southwest Utah residents.
In particular, the group has been critical of including Kane County in the project. In 2018, they filed a complaint to the Utah Attorney General’s office that argued that the water the pipeline would bring exceeded the county’s projected needs and accused Noel of conflicts of interests.
Kane County’s departure marks the second time a Southwest Utah county has walked away from the project.
Iron County officials backed out in 2012, citing concerns over raised impact fees, taxes and rates.
But Washington County’s need for the water has never been clearer, said Zach Renstrom, the executive director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
“The same process that came back and said that Kane County won’t need this project in the foreseeable future is actually confirming that Washington County does need the water,” he said.
Washington County’s population is projected to triple to over 500,000 people by 2065, according to demographic research from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
The county was already slated to receive 95% of the water carried by the pipeline prior to Kane County’s withdrawal, Renstrom added.
“Kane County was such a minor player in the overall pipeline,” he said. “So by them dropping out, it doesn’t have even a minor impact upon it.”