Using Lake Powell to keep lawns green in Utah would be a waste of resources


Felicia Fonseca / AP

This June 21, 2015, photo shows Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Ariz.

The recent downgrade in the forecast for the flow of water in the Colorado River should be a death punch to the proposal to build a new pipeline out of Lake Powell. The pipeline was already a major threat to Las Vegas and much of the rest of the Southwest; now the threat risk is heading off the charts.

The proposal would drain 28 billion gallons of water per year from Lake Powell to St. George, Utah, and the surrounding area. That’s a huge amount of water — more than a quarter of what Nevada is allotted annually from Lake Mead (97.8 billion gallons).

One glance at the massive bathtub ring at Lake Mead shows the danger that Las Vegas and other communities downstream from Lake Powell would face in losing that 28 billion gallons of water.

And the situation is deteriorating. In mid-September, the Bureau of Reclamation unveiled its new forecast showing that inflows to Lake Powell would be just 55% of average. That was down significantly from the previous forecast, in April, which had placed the inflow at 75% of average.

The ramifications of that new forecast were alarming. Officials said the new prediction brought a 12% increase in the chance that Lake Powell’s water level would drop low enough by 2025 to trigger a mandatory stoppage in the release of water from the lake to Lake Mead and downstream users.

“We’re dealing with more uncertainty than we thought,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said during a virtual news conference.

With no end in sight to the 21-year drought that has gripped the region, the only rational takeaway from the report is that the seven states that share water from the Colorado River Basin need to double down on conservation efforts.

Vastly increasing the supply to a place like St. George would be insanity. Keep in mind that the pipeline’s purpose isn’t to address a shortage of water there, it’s to support growth. And worse yet, the St. George area is terrible on conservation — its per-capita amount of water consumption is more than double that of Las Vegas. Where our city has adopted cash-for-grass turf removal programs and other measures that have drastically decreased our consumption, aerial images of St. George reveal it as a vast, emerald oasis of green lawns and lush trees. Water-wise desert landscaping? Not there.

The good news is that state and local officials in Utah recently asked the feds to hit the brakes on the approval process for the project, after basically being shouted down by the other six basin states. Those states banded together to request a delay in the release of the final environmental impact statement on the pipeline, a major step toward final approval, so their objections could be fully heard.

It’s commendable that the states stepped up, because the process has been a runaway train up to this point. Utah officials had been pushing for approval by 2021, and the Bureau of Reclamation greased the skids by issuing a badly flawed analysis of the project that didn’t adequately address the role that conservation could play in meeting St. George’s needs or analyze the long-term past and future of water flow in the Colorado River.

The Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to establish a new timeline, so there’s now some breathing room for Southern Nevada and other downstream communities.

But the bad news is that nobody has pulled the plug on this horrible project.

Especially in Las Vegas, which draws 90% of its drinking water from Lake Mead, we must use every legal means to stop this pipeline from being built.

Human-caused climate change is already putting our long-term water supply at extreme risk, by exacerbating extreme weather phenomena like the ongoing drought we are experiencing. We’re seeing conditions worsen before our eyes in the form of hotter temperatures and the ongoing record of more than 160 days without measurable rain in Las Vegas. (Yes, it rained in some parts of the valley on Sept. 23, but not at the official measuring station for Las Vegas at McCarran International Airport.)

We can’t afford to lose any water, much less an additional 28 billion gallons in the name of expanding a wasteful community upstream.