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A proposal to pipe Lake Powell water 120 miles across the desert to Washington County is economically feasible but remains an idea before its time, according to an engineering firm commissioned to study the notion.

"The cost is reasonable," said Eric Loveless of the Salt Lake-based Boyle Engineering Corp. "The problem at this point is you don't have the demand for 60,000 more acre-feet of water a year in Washington County."But sunny Washington County, golf mecca of the Mountain West, is the fastest-growing area of Utah, and leaders today are bracing for a tomorrow in which the arid region will have a bigger thirst than ever.

State Rep. John W. "Bill" Hickman, R-St. George, said skeptics who consider the $200 million pipeline proposal futuristic pie in the sky need only remember the water history of southern California, where urban centers were founded and flourished on water piped in from afar.

"You have to understand that in a desert, water's like gold," said Hickman. "No price is too great if you don't have anything to drink."

"After the turn of the century, I think it's a possibility we'll have to look at . . . what seems to be very expensive today often proves to be a real bargain down the road."

By the year 2005, St. George and its environs probably will be using every drop of water currently at their disposal if today's growth trends continue.

"That's with a fairly aggressive conservation program," said Ron Thompson, director of the Washington County Water Con-ser-vancy District, the largest supplier in the 62,000-resident county.

By 2030, even the known but untapped sources in the area will be in full use, and demand will challenge supply.

But a water crisis could develop earlier. The Governor's Office of Planning & Budget says that in a mere 25 years Washington County will have 160,000-plus inhabitants.

By then, say water administrators, the Lake Powell pipeline could look like a good deal.

The 51-inch buried steel conduit would follow U.S. 89 through the desert along the Utah-Arizona border. Two pump stations would pull water through it over mountains along the west shore of the lake. Gravity would do the rest of the work.

The proposed route would likely go through the Kaibab Indian Reservation near Fredonia, Ariz., dodging stands of endangered cacti here and there and ending ultimately at the as-yet unbuilt Sand Hollow Reservoir east of St. George, a containment lake that will probably be constructed with or without the Lake Powell pipeline.

"If somebody would pay for it, it'd be built tomorrow," said Loveless.

The state has shown considerable reluctance to spend money on water projects of such magnitude, however, and federal-government funding has dried up in recent years.

That leaves the cost to locals, which doesn't necessarily rule out the project; the Boyle study concludes that if the population of the area gets big enough it can absorb the expense.

Water from Lake Powell would cost $180 to $200 per acre-foot, the amount required to serve a family of four for one year. The price tag, said Loveless, is competitive with water costs elsewhere in Utah and could be partly offset by electricity created by generators installed on the pipeline.

Hydroelectricity from the project could amount to between 11 and 33 megawatts annually, easily enough to light a city the size of today's St. George.