Lake Powell Pipeline a “monkey wrench” in the future of Colorado River management

Glen Canyon Bridge & Dam, Page, Arizona - photo: Thaddeus Roan/ Bridgepix is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Utah Board of Water Resources has proposed to construct, operate and maintain the 141-mile long Lake Powell Pipeline, a project that would convey water from Lake Powell near Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona, to Washington County, Utah.

Washington County is located in southwest Utah and shares a border with northwest Arizona and southeast Nevada. The Washington County Water Conservancy District is the primary water supplier for the county, and according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the District says the Virgin River Basin is the exclusive source for the region’s water supply, which prompted the District to propose the pipeline.

The Lake Powell Pipeline is a project that will take 28 billion gallons of water out of the Colorado River every year to feed lawns and golf courses in St. George, Utah. Pipeline proponents, propose to do this without considering alternatives like water conservation and conservation programs that have been successfully employed in southern Nevada and elsewhere across the West.

Worth noting, earlier this year, the US Census Bureau ranked St. George Utah as the fifth fastest growing metropolitan region in the nation, with a 29 percent population growth rate between 2010 and 2019, from 138,115 to 177,556.

On this edition of the Wild Hare, we chat with Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network about the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

(See music credits below podcast script)

“It was a sister project of the Las Vegas pipeline, of course, during an era when pipelines were a saving grace in the West, back in the early 2000s, when the Vegas pipeline was being rammed and jammed through at all types of levels of government,” Roerink said via phone. “On the Nevada side, the trade off was, well, ‘Utah, you let us go into the Snake Valley (in eastern Nevada) and get this deal done there, and we’ll look the other way and that you get the Lake Powell pipeline … that’s one way to look at the history of this.

“Another way for an audience unfamiliar with it to look at it is that the water rights go back to something called the Central Utah Project. And that was supposed to be this saving grace, a project that was dreamed up in the middle of the last century as a means to get water to all these desert communities, and it was going to be a bunch of canals and reservoirs and stuff like that. A lot of the central Utah project just never happened,” Roerink said by phone. 

“So, what ultimately occurred was that Utah had all this water on paper that it was essentially granted through an act of Congress, so it had all this paper water and it said, ‘we need to put it to good use. This Central Utah Project isn’t going to work.’ And so that is where officials in southern Utah and St. George in Washington County, where they saw that there was a bunch of paper water that existed, and they said, ‘Well, if we could get a pipeline from Lake Powell to get us that water down to St. George, this would be great.’”

Explore St. George Utah with this interactive map.

Great Basin Water Network has been tenacious over decades in its opposition to a plan to pipe water from Nevada’s central valleys 300 miles to Las Vegas, and earlier this year the project was scrapped. For environmentalists, the upshot is that the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) began paying customers to remove water dependent decorative turf and other conservation measures. According to the water authority, they return 40 percent of the water used indoors to Lake Mead, and by many measures, SNWA is a leader in water conservation.

“Officials in St. George, they oversee some of the worst waterways in the western United States, and arguably throughout the country. They’re using about 300 gallons per capita per day. If you think of that as kinda like a residential unit … that’s how much water they’re using.

“Down in Vegas, they’re using less than half of that. The same thing in Denver and in Albuquerque and in Phoenix. And so I think a big picture perspective here is that while these communities, big metro areas like Las Vegas, Denver and Phoenix throughout the West have understood the reality on the Colorado River and what’s happening in the past couple of decades, St. George still wants to pretend like it’s 1950 And that their paper water rights are actually going to get wet water rights.”


Roerink and others are sounding the alarm because the Colorado River is in severe distress, and what a steadily warming climate spells for the giant river system on which 40 million people a day depend is unknown.

“Since 1900, the Colorado River has lost about 3 million acre feet of annual flows. Now, if you put that into perspective, it’s like 900 million gallons of annual flows.

“There is science out there done by Bradley Udall and Jonathan Overpeck that, by the end of this century, the Colorado River and its tributaries are going to lose another 3 million acre feet of annual flows. And so, I think why we’re seeing communities like Las Vegas, like Phoenix, like Albuquerque really double down on conservation and do long term planning that includes climate change and drought analysis in a serious way. Southern Utah, again, wants to pretend like it’s 1950 and so they have put forward this Lake Powell Pipeline project.”

According to the Draft Environmental Statement, a primary reason the pipeline is being proposed is because Washington County, Utah says it is solely dependent on the Virgin River for water. Roerink says that isn’t true.

“One of their main arguments about why they need this water so badly, why they want to drain 28 billion gallons of water out of the Colorado River every year. Because right now, St. George really relies on the Virgin River, and they say that the Virgin River is its only source, and the Virgin River is another tributary to the Colorado River.

“Really with some great investigation that’s been done by my grassroots groups in Utah, the Virgin River isn’t even the only source that southern Utah, Washington County and St. George have. There is groundwater that they haven’t used yet and other sources.”

Nevada’s Colorado River Commission opposed the pipeline in written comments submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation. Several elected leaders from southern Nevada have submitted written comments in opposition to the Lake Powell Pipeline. Six of the seven Colorado River Compact states have gone beyond the scope of the Draft EIS and submitted a letter directly to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

“The letter was very stern. And it basically said, if you keep moving forward on this project in the way that you are, and the type of proposal that it is, it’s going to screw up a lot of negotiations that we had set for the upcoming year to figure out how to truly manage the Colorado River for the years to come.

“Because that’s the overarching thing that is hanging over everyone’s head. We have this Lake Powell Pipeline process, and the review that the Bureau of Reclamation is conducting. But it’s also important to note that in January, the seven Colorado River basin states are supposed to get to a room and start figuring out how to create a new management plan, and that has to be done by 2026. And they call the Colorado River the river of law for nothing.”

Since the initial Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922, nearly 100 years of laws and countless court rulings have resulted in the existing method of river management. Seven states are among the many stakeholders that include a quintet of federal agencies, numerous sovereign tribes and the nation of Mexico.

“The Lake Powell Pipeline is threatening what everyone hopes will be a smooth negotiation process about how are we going to create a new Colorado River Compact. Everybody knows the 1922 Compact and how it gave states a certain allocation. We all know Nevada got the short end of the stick. And we all know that because of droughts and because of climate change, there’s less water in the river than was thought back in 1922. And I call that, the original sin of the Colorado River Compact. They overestimated how much was actually in the river, and so we’re still dealing with the consequences of that today.”

Should the Lake Powell Pipeline project be approved, Roerink says the result could be a big, ugly water war.

“There has been a relative accord amongst the big players for the past couple of decades, but, again, as we’ve seen those bathtub rings at lakes Mead and Powell continue to grow and other storage reservoirs across the West, I think the acrimony, and the likelihood for more acrimony, will increase. And I think a project like the Lake Powell Pipeline, exemplifies what I call the original sin of the Colorado River Compact. There’s just more water on paper than there actually is wet water.”

The Lake Powell Pipeline takes water from the Colorado River at Lake Powell, but the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement does not evaluate impacts on Lake Mead roughly 250 miles downriver. Lake Mead is SNWA’s primary source of water. 

“I look at it from the perspective of Lake Mead. This environmental review process completely ignored Lake Mead. It didn’t study potential effects like base water levels, Lake Mead’s water quality … that’s on ecosystems, wildlife such as threatened fish species.

“But that’s the going thing because, you know, under current and setups right now along the river, Lake Powell and Mead are managed in a very symbiotic fashion. And there have been deals struck most, most recently, the drought contingency plan in 2019 and then prior to that the 2007 interim guidelines, as they’re referred. 

“It’s really about two things. It’s about managing the two most important reservoirs and in the West in a symbiotic fashion. And it’s also about getting all these states to not sue each other over water, and the Lake Powell Pipeline just completely throws a monkey wrench in all of that.”

The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to issue a Record of Decision on the pipeline in December of this year, but according to Roerink, there is wide-spread concern that the Trump Administration will unilaterally approve the project with no deference to the law.

“Last week, the Trump Administration put out a list of projects that it said would be completely excluded from the NEPA review process, and so the Lake Powell Pipeline was on that list and in what the Administration essentially said was that the Lake Powell Pipeline could be categorically excluded from any further environmental review. And so I think, if the Bureau of Reclamation really wanted to, they could say, ‘sorry, LPP opponents. We’re just going to approve this.’ Now granted, I think that would also really give even more grounds for litigation.

“Because of all the laws that guide the management of the river, one of the really unsettling pieces about this project is that it needs Congressional approval, and it needs the consent of the other Colorado River basin states. And this project has not had Congressional approval granted to it. Lawmakers in DC haven’t done that yet. And clearly, it doesn’t have the consent of the other Colorado River Basin states.

“And so it really just raises a lot of questions about how this thing can just be rammed and jammed through when the law is telling us otherwise. And so I think it’s just important to underscore this project doesn’t have the consent of Nevada, it doesn’t have the consent of Congress, and I don’t think it has the consent of the American people and all of us who care about the future of the Colorado River.”

Music Credits as reported through the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance

Song: El Lado Oscuro De Mi Compadre
Artist: Nortec Collective
Album: Nortec Collective The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1
Label: Palm Pictures
Year: 2008
Duration: 1:51

Song: Trip To Ensenada
Artist: Nortec Collective
Album: Nortec Collective The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1
Label: Palm Pictures
Year: 2008
Duration: 2:39

Song: Diversion
Artist: DJ Ezi
Album: Friends for Dinner
Label: Jon Kennedy Federation
Year: 2013
Duration: 3:02

Song: The Underground
Artist: DJ Ezi
Album: Friends for Dinner
Label: Jon Kennedy Federation
Year: 2013
Duration: 1:10

Song: El Vergel
Artist: Nortec Collective
Album: Nortec Collective The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1
Label: Palm Pictures
Year: 2008
Duration: 3:20

Song: We Be Gettin Down
Artist: DJ Ezi
Album: Friends for Dinner
Label: Jon Kennedy Federation
Year: 2013
Duration: 2:23

Song: State Troopers (Part 1) (Album Version
Artist: Cornershop
Album: When I was Born for the 7th Time
Label: Wiiija
Year: 1997
Duration: 2:23

Song: Montys Cello
Artist: DJ Ezi
Album: Friends for Dinner
Label: Jon Kennedy Federation
Year: 2013
Duration: 1:17


Brian Bahouth is a career public media producer and produces the Wild Hare podcast. Support his work here.