Six states send letter of warning over Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline

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The Colorado River flowing from the foot of the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona.  (Photo: Sam Gross/The St. George Spectrum & Daily News)

Six states with claim to water in the Colorado River have fired a warning shot at Utah over the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline.

Don’t allow Utah to bum-rush approval for the 150-mile pipeline, the six states warned in a letter to Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, or there could be far-reaching consequences.

The letter, signed by top water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming, says there are “substantive legal and operational issues” around the pipeline that remain unresolved, despite the proposed project nearing a stage where federal approval could be issued.

While the federal government — in this case, the Bureau of Reclamation — may normally have full authority to issue approval for an infrastructure project like this, Colorado River water is governed by a complicated and oftentimes litigious collection of inter-state compacts and Supreme Court cases known as The Law of the River.

The six states — all of the water rights holders aside from the Beehive State — are alleging Utah is attempting to circumvent this 100-year-old body of laws and compacts, potentially jeopardizing cooperation between the seven states with rights to Colorado River water — one of the west’s most finite and sought-after resources relied on by approximately 40 million people. 

“Moreover, we believe the probability of multi-year litigation over a Lake Powell Pipeline (final environmental impact statement) or (record of decision) is high, and that certain Law of the River questions properly left to discussions and resolution between the states are likely to be raised in such suits,” the letter reads.”

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The six states are looking for ‘consensus’

The Lake Powell Pipeline is Utah’s answer to expected water shortages as more and more people are projected to move to the arid desert of Washington County over the next several decades.

Projections from Utah expect population in the greater St. George area to balloon from about 180,000 people today to nearly a half-million by 2065, creating a need for water that exceeds what’s currently available, according to proponents of the project.

At peak production, the pipeline is proposed to transport about 86,000 acre-feet of water a year from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir 140 miles away, not only increasing the amount of water available but adding another source of water to southwestern Utah’s portfolio, which currently relies solely on sources in the Virgin River Basin.

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The Colorado River flowing the Glen Canyon Dam just south of Lake Powell.  (Photo: Sam Gross/The St. George Spectrum & Daily News)

Aside from the contentious issues surrounding the actual construction of the pipeline across vast expanses of environmentally sensitive and culturally significant lands, this proposal raises a host of issues ranging from operational and policy questions to if there is even enough water in the river, despite Utah having theoretical rights to it.

These issues are typically worked out among states in accordance with the Law of the River, according to the six-states letter.

Read the full letter here:

A draft environmental impact statement issued recently by the Bureau of Reclamation states Utah is addressing those issues with the other water rights-holding states, which the letter from the six states acknowledges.

However, those issues “remain unresolved,” the letter says.

The six-states letter asks the secretary of the interior to hold off issuing a decision on the pipeline until they’ve had time to reach a consensus over how the project will proceed, a method of decision making tried and trued in the Colorado River Basin, according to the letter.

“As we have in our past efforts, we commit through this letter to act in good faith to identify consensus solutions to the interstate questions that the Lake Powell Pipeline raises for the entire basin,” the letter closes. “But that work is undeniably best undertaken as part of a seven-state process rather than as an incident to the NEPA process or ensuing litigation with third parties conducted by courts.”

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Sam Gross covers the outdoors and development in Southern Utah for The St. George Spectrum & Daily News. Support his work by subscribing to TheSpectrum.com. 

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