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Accusations fly over water use data, Lake Powell Pipeline

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah continues to ramp up efforts to boost the accuracy of water use data, a longtime foe of the Lake Powell Pipeline project is accusing proponents of deliberately misleading a legislative committee over water availability in southern Utah.

The Utah Rivers Council is asking Utah State Auditor John Dougall to determine if any laws were broken in an Aug. 22 meeting of the state Water Development Commission, where officials gave an update on the proposed 139-mile pipeline.

"This complaint documents this disconcerting line of false and/or misleading communications from these Utah agency representatives that are in direct contradiction to previous statements and communications made by these same representatives to other parties," wrote Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council in his letter to Dougall.

Water officials responded Wednesday asserting Frankel is deliberately taking the comments out of context.

Frankel has long contended the proposed pipeline is an unnecessary financial boondoggle that needlessly taps the wallets of Utah taxpayers when water districts could do a better job at conserving.

"The amount of water a community is conserving is the cornerstone of demonstrating future water needs and future spending required to serve those water needs," Frankel wrote. "Accurately determining the amount of water used by a community is therefore vital to determining whether future spending is required."

Frankel pointed to discrepancies between official documents submitted in the licensing process for the pipeline and oral comments made to the commission, asking for an audit of the conversation to determine their accuracy.

The Utah Division of Water Resources used a 2010 demand forecast of 325 gallons of municipal and industrial water per capita per day in areas served by the Washington County Water Conservancy District in a submission to a federal agency over licensing the pipeline.

In comments before the state Water Development Commission, however, district general manager Ron Thompson estimated per person water use at 140 gallons per day — a figure which Frankel said wasn't corrected by state water resources director Eric Millis.

The discrepancies, Frankel asserts, means either water use numbers were inflated to exaggerate the need for the pipeline or that Washington County has reached a conservation target effective enough to kill the need for the pipeline.

"Whichever the answer is, it is clear we can't trust these agency leaders to be truthful," he said.

Frankel said he believes the statement may be a violation of state law that prohibits intentional communication of false information to a public official.

Karry Rathje, water district spokeswoman, said they were still reviewing the letter and its accusations, but a preliminary analysis shows it contains a number of factual errors and "misinformation."

"If you listen to the entire audio report, it is clear that he (Thompson) was referencing preliminary residential water use from 2015. It was never intended to represent total water use in the county," she said.

Rathje added that Thompson's comments weren't even part of the official report to the commission, but in response to a lawmaker's question about the district's conservation efforts in general.

Thompson rejected Frankel's accusations.

"I certainly understand what Zach is saying, but I don't agree. I went in and pulled the transcript and it was clear I was talking about residential use. In fact, it was very clear. And I would never deliberately mislead the commission."

Millis issued a statement as well, saying that any misunderstanding that may have come from the comments was unintentional.

The controversial project, at an estimated price tag of $1.1 billion, would siphon 82,249 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River for delivery from Lake Powell to Washington County residents. Another 4,000 acre-feet would be delivered to Kane County, with water needs Frankel said were also exaggerated by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, when he spoke to the commission in the same hearing.

Noel is general manager of the Kane County Water Conservancy District.

"To say we have all the water we need is absolutely insane," Noel said, noting that per capita use does not account for tourist consumption.

"There is nobody out there in the water community who gets any financial personal benefits to make sure that we have an adequate water supply in the future," he said.

In 2006, the Utah Legislature passed a law authorizing the pipeline as a state project to meet projected future demand.

A July analysis by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah projects Washington County will have the No. 1 population growth in the state over 50 years, with a 229 percent change.

Thompson and other proponents say the county will be unable to meet water demand without the pipeline.

Approval for the project, which has hydropower components, is pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Utah's congressional delegation has asked for an expedited review.

Questions over the reliability of water use data are dominating the attention of state water resource managers, those over water rights and public policymakers as Utah strives to improve the process.

The state just awarded a $300,000 contract to a pair of engineering firms for an independent analysis of 2015 water use data — and its accuracy — including Washington County.

James Greer, with the Utah Division of Water Rights, told a legislative committee Wednesday that it spent $100,000 to improve the division's online data entry system and $70,000 to allow them to bring on a person to increase visits in the field.

In his update to the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, Greer said so far this year, division employees visited 477 public water systems, or 15 systems a week.

"These employees lived out of their cars, basically."

Just in the one year effort to improve the system, Greer said the division believes the accuracy of the data on water use has jumped from 50 percent to 90 percent.