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Plan to pipe Powell water picking up steam

After nine years of debate and study, a controversial plan to pipe Colorado River water from Lake Powell to the St. George Basin is picking up steam.

State water officials unveiled a proposed 122-mile route to the Utah Water Development Commission on Tuesday that had some heads bobbing up and down in agreement and others in amusement.

From Lake Powell, the water would flow through 60-inch pipes along U.S. 89 to Kanab, then dip into Arizona as the highway follows the Vermilion Cliffs before returning to Utah where the pipeline would end at the Sand Hollow Reservoir, near St. George.

Critics call it a $354 million pipe dream, but water planners say rapid growth has made it a necessity.

"As we looked at it, it seems to make more sense," said Larry Anderson, director of the state Division of Water Resources.

It would bring an additional 70,000 acre-feet of water to Washington County and another 10,000 acre-feet of water to Kanab.

And now Cedar City wants in on the action.

Central Water Conservancy District is interested in expanding the project so it can receive 20,000 acre-feet of water to meet Cedar City's growing needs. That would involve another pipeline from the St. George area north along I-15 to Cedar City, estimated to cost an additional $113 million.

The Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes states like Utah that have a claim to Colorado River water, has passed a resolution supporting the plan.

But the state of Arizona isn't interested in footing part of the bill in exchange for water for the Kaibab Indian Reservation, as well as Fredonia and Colorado City, Ariz.

Ron Thompson, director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said the project must move forward with or without Arizona's participation.

"This is driven by growth," he said. "I think the project makes a lot of sense. I'm just not sure how to finance it."

How to pay for this and other major water projects is an issue likely to dominate the 2004 Legislature.

The Gubernatorial and Legislative Task Force on Alternative Revenue Sources for Water Funding — a panel of lawmakers, water district officials and governor's office representatives — formally approved a report that recommended making no changes to the current system, which uses a small amount of sales and property taxes to pay for water development.

But the task force on Tuesday also directed the Water Development Commission to study just how to pay for more than $5.3 billion of water development needs over the next 20 years.

And that doesn't include the $354 million Lake Powell pipeline and $113 million Cedar City extension, $260 million for Bear River development, $300 million for an Upper Green River pipeline from Flaming Gorge to the Wasatch Front, and $115 million to enclose the lower Provo River canal to prevent water loss.

Lawmakers on the task force had earlier suggested general tax increases would be needed to meet basic water needs and that tax increases might be proposed during the 2004 session.

But when the task force concluded its business for the year on Tuesday, a tax increase was not part of the recommendation.