Right On: Lake Powell pipeline? Just say no

"I believe that a majority of Southern Utah residents do not want LA-style unbridled growth," columnist Howard Sierer writes in his opinion, "Right On: The Lake Powell Pipeline? Just say no." | Image of LA skyline by BrainC22 / iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

OPINION – I can see it now: wall to wall suburbs, strip malls and big box stores stretching from Santa Clara to Springdale, from Pintura to the Arizona border. Slow-and-go traffic on Interstate 15. Overloaded local roads. The Los Angeles basin in miniature.

If this is your vision for Washington County’s future, skip the rest of this column. Go straight to the “Comments” section below and enlighten the rest of us.

I believe that a majority of Southern Utah residents do not want LA-style unbridled growth. Instead they support modest growth in coming years with a gradual shift from an economy based on new construction to a sustainable economy with a healthy mix of light manufacturing and technology businesses, complementing the recreation-oriented businesses and retirees we have now.

Support for LA-style growth can be expected from owners of large tracts of developable land. Such growth will require more – much more – water. Much more water means the Lake Powell pipeline.

Pipeline supporters create the impression that the pipeline is inevitable. They point to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget population forecast shown in “A Snapshot of 2050.” The GOMB forecasts Washington County’s population growing from today’s approximately 160,000 to about 473,000 by 2050. To arrive at this forecast, it simply extrapolates past population and job growth into the future without addressing the water needed to support that growth.

Taking the GOMB population forecast as written in stone, the Washington County Water Conservancy District tells us that only the proposed Lake Powell pipeline can supply enough water.

This circular logic leads us down the primrose path. The GOMB forecasts growth ignoring water. The WCWCD says we must build the pipeline to support that growth. The pipeline in turn validates the GOMB forecast. Then both the GOMB and the WCWCD pat themselves on the back.

But what happens if there is no pipeline?

Washington County can grow to perhaps 250,000 people using existing water sources and applying appropriate and practical conservation measures. Even that number may be more than many wish.

Forty-one percent of Utah citizens think “the state should focus on water conservation rather than building new infrastructure,” according to the Utah Foundation. Only 21 percent disagreed.

But Utah officials have raised suspicions about their commitment to conservation. The state’s Division of Water Resources stonewalled requests to turn over its water database to the Utah Rivers Council. Is the state committed to conservation or to seeing Utah continue as the fastest growing state in the union?

Washington County voters deserve a chance to approve or reject the pipeline. If we get the chance, we have a number of questions to consider.

Why do you live here?

Do you live here to get in on the ground floor of a booming economic expansion? Or do you live here for the lifestyle, the scenic beauty, a more relaxed pace of life? If you live here for the lifestyle, do you believe it will be maintained with three times the number of people in the county?

Will the pipeline support 473,000 people?

Utah is the second driest state in the country. Rampant population growth in other semiarid states around us – California, Arizona and Nevada – has caused massive water restrictions during inevitable periods of drought. Foreshadowing the future, Washington County has restricted summer water use in recent years.

Recreational boaters know firsthand that Lake Powell water levels have dropped dramatically over the last 10-15 years. Building the pipeline is one thing, hoping there is enough water to fill it in future years is another.

If the controversial Colorado River Compact were renegotiated, how would Washington County’s water allocation stand up against claims from far more populous California, Arizona and Nevada?

Can we afford the pipeline?

Keeping an eye on their wallets may convince those on the fence to oppose the pipeline. WCWCD has no official pipeline cost estimate but acknowledges that it will be “about a billion dollars.” Others believe the cost will be two to three times as much.

As the late Sen. Everett Dirksen famously reportedly said, “A billion here, a billion there, sooner or later it adds up to real money.”

As reported in St. George News, a November 2015 study endorsed by 20 economists from three major Utah universities predicted the pipeline would incur debt as high as $781 each year for every resident of Washington County. Paying for the pipeline would require extreme increases in water prices, impact fees or both, said the study’s authors.

Current thinking is that the state would finance the project with Washington County repaying the state as water users are added. But a 2016 survey found that 26 percent of Utah residents oppose the pipeline and 51 percent more want to see what it will cost before committing.

Will we get to vote?

There is a faint ray of hope for Southern Utah water users. St. George Mayor Jon Pike serves on the WCWCD board. I asked him recently about whether the pipeline would be put to a public vote. To my pleasant surprise, he stated that he favors a vote and thought he could convince other board members. He also felt, reasonably, that a vote should wait several years until plans are completed to the point where a realistic cost estimate could be provided.

I recognize that his answer gives him and other board members plenty of wiggle room to move ahead without a vote. Plans and approvals have a momentum of their own.

The Lake Powell pipeline decision will have by far the biggest lifestyle and financial impact on the citizens of Southern Utah since air conditioning and I-15. Wise voters will choose elected officials who are committed to their views on this important subject.

Just say no.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.


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  • Proud Rebel April 6, 2017 at 9:03 am

    So far, I’m on the fence about the pipeline. I don’t want to see unlimited growth of Dixie. But then there is the moral dilemma of “do we have the right to limit growth?” Is it perfectly moral to move to this area, and then have the attitude of, ” OK I’m here now but I don’t want anybody else to be able to move in.
    Then there’s the question of availability of water for the pipeline. While no one can predict with any certainty how much water Powell is going to have in future years, I think it is essential that we have clearly defined water rights. Cast in stone!
    I’m going to make some folks very angry with the following statement, but take it as food for thought: With the level of corruption that Utah is becoming famous for, is there any reason at all to think this pipeline is nothing more than another scam to enrichen the pockets of a select few? Is there any reason to believe the pipeline is not going to results in years of court wrangling?

    • Brian April 6, 2017 at 12:05 pm

      We’re supposed to have representative government, but these guys only represent themselves when money is on the line. The pipeline is a complete sham (as are any claims they intend to give the people a say in it).

      Yes, politicians are corrupt, but name a state that has less corrupt politicians and I’ll show you a state you know nothing about. I’m furious at Utah politicians (especially the GOP, who’s actions go completely against what they claim to stand for), but we aren’t “becoming famous” for our corrupt politicians. We’re just sinking to the level that most states have been at for a long time.

      I’m not sure there is any form of government that was ever meant to “scale” to the level of population, prosperity, and connectedness we experience today. It’s truly unprecedented in the history of the world. I’ll stand by the Constitution until it and I are completely dead. The problem is what we’re practicing at the local, state, and federal level isn’t anywhere near what the Constitution actually says or the founders intended.

      • Bender April 6, 2017 at 6:09 pm

        “I’ll stand by the Constitution ”

        Just your interpretation of the constitution, right? You’re comfortable dismissing the judiciaries interpretation of it?

  • comments April 6, 2017 at 10:57 am

    I’m convinced that sales tax and property taxes will also be raised to pay for it. They’ll probably hatch up a few more sneaky taxes and fees as well. It will not just be impact and use fees; they’re gonna make sure they cut into us a little deeper. They’ll find a way to make it hit middle income earners the hardest. It might be a few years, but the project will be started. A lot of powerful people stand to become extremely wealthy from this project, and they’ll never let it go.

    • comments April 6, 2017 at 1:22 pm

      1 example I remember: in one city I lived in years ago they were trying to fund a massive public works project and they actually tacked on an enormous fee to annual vehicle registrations. It was something like $300 or more tacked onto the usual fees and taxes for such a thing. When they get us billions into debt with this project don’t think they won’t try things like that here, because they will. Politicians cook up ways to rob the public constantly–especially those good ol’ boys up at the water works.

  • Scorch April 6, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Nice work with the fear mongering. A pipeline doesn’t mean unbridled growth, but it would mean some growth.
    Southern Utah will never be as large as LA.
    Most of the people I see who are against this are of an older generation, who moved here late in life, got the lifestyle they want and don’t want anyone to mess with it. It’s understandable, but most of you folks won’t be around to see this get built, let alone see any crazy growth that would impact your lives in any way, so why do you care so much​?
    Seems like half of this county is involved somehow in the construction industry, without a pipeline most of those people will have to leave.

  • great success April 6, 2017 at 2:59 pm

    Good article. They better allow the public to vote for this. So often I feel I’m tasked with voting for obscure matters, and when something like this comes down the line the Good Ol’ Boys just take the reins.

    • comments April 6, 2017 at 4:46 pm

      There’s too much money at stake here. There not gonna risk putting it on a public ballot. Even if it was voted down by the public they’d find a way to go ahead with the project. I’ve seen it before.

      • comments April 6, 2017 at 4:57 pm

        The same city i mentioned above (seattle, wa) with the $300 fee added on registrations wanted to build a giant tunnel to replace the downtown expressway. They put it to a vote and the public overwhelmingly rejected the tunnel idea. They basically said “you know what, we don’t care what the public wants, we’re going to build our tunnel, llke it or not”. That’s exactly what they did. I haven’t kept up on it but I think it’s been a disaster with huge delays and massive cost overruns. Bottom line: this pipe is gettin’ built. I’m not even opposed so much to their big pipe as much as I am to how they’ll rob us all to pay for the thing. It’ll be the public paying for a project that should be paid for by the developers who’ll reap nearly all the benefit. And if it’s private money they might even stay on budget. Public funding will be like writing them a blank check.

        • .... April 6, 2017 at 6:33 pm

          You should get your crying towel out before you do anything

  • arrowone April 6, 2017 at 5:25 pm


    These people know how to save water. I retired from there. Note that most financing and infrastructure is done by Federal grants. Funny how some people can put it together and others want to just bring in more water to waste. Not sure if one can open the web site, but these people take pride in recycling water for most outdoor activities. Water is pumped back in the district for twenty miles at least. 380 miles away from St George.

  • Bender April 6, 2017 at 6:05 pm

    Big mistake, in my estimation, to campaign against the pipeline based on the argument that it will allow or drive more development. Stay calm and let me outline why. A significant portion of the county makes their livelihood in real estate, construction and related services. This argument alienates them right off the bat and helps keep them resigned, ambivalent or pro-pipeline. The pipeline is bad economics, plain and simple, and this could be the argument that unites both center/left-leaning newcomers and the native conservative Mormon population against.

  • utahdiablo April 6, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    You’re all not seeing the Crazy Growth happening right now in Washington County? It’s everywhere….the Good ol’ boys are to blame, and only wanting to fill their greedy pockets…the time to change this BS is right now

  • commonsense April 6, 2017 at 9:32 pm

    Tha last thing we want is a city without water.
    Just a few years of drought would be a disaster.
    I don’t see St George ever having major industry. It will always be a residential retirement community. There’s plenty of red dirt to build homes and services. We just won’t have high rise buildings so quit the LA comparisons.

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