SALT LAKE CITY — Foes of the proposed Lake Powell pipeline are celebrating an acknowledgement by state water resource officials that the 139-mile conduit may not be needed for five or even 10 years longer than initially thought.
The delay is being driven by revised projections in Washington County population growth, which hit a sudden lurch during the Great Recession that began in 2008.
State water resource managers and the Washington County Water Conservancy District had been pushing a 2020 time frame to have the pipeline in place or face running out of water.
New numbers released by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget show Washington County's growth has been hard hit by the economic downturn, slowing the immediacy of the project.
"This is great news for Washington County residents because maybe now water bureaucrats will stop ramming this massive debt down our throats," said Christi Wedig, executive director of Citizens for Dixie's Future.
That group and the Utah Rivers Council have been ardent foes of the project, which they characterize as a "financial boondoggle" that will deliver Colorado River water to a "wasteful" water district.
Eric Millis, deputy director of the state Division of Water Resources, said the issue of the pipeline's timing came up in a Thursday meeting of the state water resources board. He added that it was anticipated revised population numbers from the governor's office might result in delays.
"We have been saying that for some time, that the revised projections might push it back," Millis said. "You have to remember that those last population projections came out before the financial meltdown, when things were really flying down there."
He added that the "reality" of the 2010 U.S. Census numbers showed population growth at 20 percent less than what had been projected for Washington County.
"Before that, we were still up in the air," Millis said.
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said the state has essentially thrown $25 million in studies down the drain in its pursuit of the Lake Powell pipeline.
"No matter how you look at it, there is absolutely no need for this ridiculously expensive pipeline," Frankel said.
Millis said population projections for Washington County may be signaling a delay for when the pipeline is necessary, but the state is still marching forward in its preliminary environmental and cultural analysis of the project's potential impacts.
The study on how those might play out for the $1 billion, 139-mile pipeline is expected to take at least another year before the paperwork is ready for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which would be the entity that licenses the hydropower project.
Millis added, too, that the division is working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to study the impacts of climate change on the Virgin River, which is a lower basin tributary of the Colorado River and the source of Washington County's chief water supply. The study also will look at how Lake Powell is expected to fare in the coming decades factoring in climate change.
"We will use that information to revise our water needs assessment, which is the document that will drive when the project is needed and what the demand curve on the project is," he said.
One way touted as an avenue to pay for Utah's water projects — including the Lake Powell pipeline — was a proposal that was discussed last year during the legislative session, where a bill was introduced to earmark 15 percent of the future growth in sales tax revenue. Leery legislators balked at the measure and it was shelved.
This session, Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, proposed adding sales tax to water bills to help fund projects. The measure was held up in committee this week and declared dead by its critics, who saw it as another way to fund the Lake Powell Pipeline.
On Friday, Jenkins said he is not so sure the measure is in the trash can.
"Frankly I got them looking at another angle," he said. "It's not totally dead yet."
Jenkins, who serves on the state's Water Development Commission, said the reality of the Lake Powell Pipeline project is that it would capture 86,000 acre-feet of Utah's share of the Colorado River that slips by into Nevada and California.
"People don't want to develop that area, but we have an allotment of Colorado River water. I am afraid if we don't get that in the next few years, it won't be there."
With the timing and the financing of the project in question, critics say it is time to pull the plug on the pipeline, but Washington County's top water manager isn't budging in his quest for a new water supply for the future.
"There is no question we will have to have an additional water source," said Ron Thompson, general manger of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
"Our view is that we are going to keep moving ahead," he said, "but we are not fools. We are not going to build it unless we are sure we need it and we have figured out a way to pay for it. We still have an enormous amount of work to do."