The Utah Division of Water Rights is currently considering a water change application by the Utah Division of Water Resources (UDWR), Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD) and Kane County Water Conservancy District (KCWCD) to use Utah water rights for 83,756 acre-ft (27 billion gallons per year) for the Lake Powell Pipeline. The application asks to change the point of diversion from the Green River to Lake Powell.

The proposed 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline would transport water from Lake Powell to Washington County and possibly Kane County. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the project will cost around $2 billion.

The water change application was submitted on April 13 of this year. Three days earlier, KCWCD had opted out of the NEPA environmental review process, after the Bureau of Reclamation had informed KCWCD that the county did not need the water in the foreseeable future based on population projections.

The Bureau of Reclamation preserved KWCWD’s ability to rejoin the project. At the request of KCWCD, the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) included a connection turnout east of Johnson Canyon “for potential future delivery of water to the KCWCD service area, if pursued.”

The Utah Division of Water Resources has set aside 4,000 acre-ft (1.3 billion gallons per year) for Kane County.

Since opting out, the question remained what KCWCD’s continued involvement with the LPP project would be.

On September 10, Utah’s Attorney General office determined that Mike Noel, Executive Director of KCWCD, could not serve on the Lake Powell Pipeline Management Committee as KCWCD is no longer a participating district.

At the water rights hearing on October 21, KCWCD’s attorney John Mabey, with the Salt Lake City law firm Mabey Wright & James, clarified the matter. “They [KCWCD] withdrew from the NEPA process, they are however still part of the project, and they intend to stay involved in it.” The Southern Utah News reached out to Noel for comment, but has not received a response as of publication time.

Mabey explained that Kane County is “preserving their right to be able to use the project in the future” as water needs may change in the future.

Kane County’s population increased by 673 people over the last decade, to 7,886 people in 2019 (most recent year of data), according to the U.S. Census. The Kem C. Gardner Institute projects that 10,736 people will reside in our county by the year 2055.

Washington County’s population is projected to more than double to 430,000 people over the next 35 years. Zachary Renstrom, General Manager with WCWCD, noted at last month’s water rights hearing that “St. George is now becoming an economic engine for the state of Utah.”

The attorney for WCWCD, Wendy Crowther, stated the Lake Powell Pipeline “is a critical source of reliable water supply for the fast-growing southern Utah region.”

Jane Whalen, board member for Conserve Southwest Utah, presented data that Lake Powell Pipeline would not provide a reliable water source, as we are already using more water than is going into the Colorado River. “We are already running a deficit, and that is just going to continue,” Whalen stated. “Utah does have a paper water right, but we think it is just paper. It doesn’t have any physical wet water with it.”

In addition to being physically feasible, under Utah law, the Lake Powell Pipeline has to be economically feasible and not impair public welfare.

Zachary Frankel, Executive Director with the Utah Rivers Council, testified that “the Lake Powell Pipeline is the most extravagant and expensive source of [water] supply in the state of Utah,” and thus it would be detrimental to public welfare. According to Frankel, public interest would be better served by choosing a cheaper source of water such as water conservation.

Crowther explained that since the Lake Powell Pipeline has to undergo an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) review, it will ensure the Lake Powell Pipeline will not be detrimental to public welfare.

She cited a court case in which the organization HEAL Utah had sued over a water change ruling that permitted KCWCD to divert water rights to the Green River, in order to lease water to a proposed nuclear power plant, Blue Castle.

The District Court had in that case ruled that “the fact that the project must undergo significant other reviews and permits, particularly the types of reviews that have the goal of protecting the public interest and environmental interests, can be reason to believe that the project will not be detrimental to the public welfare.”

The final EIS for the Lake Powell Pipeline was expected this month.

But the Bureau of Reclamation hit the pause button in September after receiving 14,000 public comments. Todd Adams, director of UDWR, explained “the extension will allow more time to consider the comments and complete further analysis, which will contribute to a more comprehensive draft and final EIS.”

The Draft EIS is back in “development stage,” according to Rick Baxter, Division Manager with the Provo office of the Bureau of Reclamation, and no new timeline has been issued for the updated draft EIS analysis.

Whalen mentioned at the water rights hearing that “Senator Vickers said the EIS record of decision is expected in 2022.” Evan Vickers is a Republican Utah State Senator who serves on the Business, Economic Development, and Labor Appropriations Subcommittee.

If Kane County decides to rejoin the Lake Powell Pipeline at some point in the future, KCWCD’s attorney Mabey noted that “they will then have to follow and do their own NEPA to connect.”

KCWCD may be able to avoid the environmental review all together if there is no “federal nexus,” according to Baxter. This could be the case if the connection pipeline to the Johnson Canyon area is built solely on private land or county-owned land, and KCWCD does not receive a federal grant for the project.

KCWCD’s original plan for paying for its share of the Lake Powell Pipeline and the connection pipeline to Johnson Canyon was to use revenue from leasing water to the Blue Castle nuclear power plant. Without this source of revenue, it is at this point in time unclear how KCWCD would pay for its share of construction costs.