Thirsty desert communities look upstream to satisfy demand for water
It’s 2 p.m. on a mid-July day in St. George, Utah, and the thermometer reads 107 degrees Fahrenheit. The desert wind feels like the hot blast from a handheld hairdryer.
At the 27-hole Sunbrook Golf Club, a maintenance worker lavishes water from an oversized hose onto the fringe of a green. The lush green fairways at Sunbrook are in stark contrast to the burnt sienna of the surrounding desert.
St. George, with an annual precipitation of 8.3 inches, offers a case study in how scarce water resources are being put to use in the arid American West.
St. George and Steamboat Springs aren’t entirely different. In fact, they have more in common than one might realize. If skiing is king in Steamboat, it is the promise of year-round golf that draws retirees to St. George.
But it’s easier to take water for granted in Steamboat.
“If you take a long shower in Steamboat Springs, the water comes back to the river,” said Ron Thompson, district manager of the Washington County Water Conservation District in St. George. “It’s not depleted. Based on depletion, Steamboat’s water use is not very high.”
Living in Northwest Colorado, it’s tempting to take a Steamboat-centric or Craig-centric view of the Yampa River. Residents of the valley have never had to think about water restrictions – they live close to the source. The river begins 50 miles south of Steamboat in the Flat Tops mountains and ends in Moffat County, where it reaches its confluence with the Green River. End of story.
Or is it? Thirsty communities in Utah, Arizona and California are looking for more of the water that flows out of the Rocky Mountains, and they’re beginning to take action.
The Yampa Valley seems to have so much water that its residents allow much of the Yampa’s flows to leave the state to nourish the Green and Colorado rivers, as they always have. The water is integral to the desert ecosystems to the southwest of the Yampa Valley.
St. George doesn’t rely directly on the Yampa or Colorado rivers for its domestic water. Yet, as states in the arid West confront the 21st century reality that the water supply is finite, St. George and the Utah state government are embarking on an ambitious plan. They are seeking to tie up more of the co-mingled water of the Yampa, Green and Colorado rivers that collect in the giant storage basin known as Lake Powell.
The 60,000 acre-feet of water St. George is pursuing represents water Utah is entitled to. After it’s put to use allowing the desert oasis of St. George to grow, the water of the Yampa will only look more tempting to the rest of the region.
Thompson grew up less than an hour north of St. George in Cedar City, Utah, where the climate is milder. But his grandparents reminded him of how difficult water has always been to come by in St. George. Early pioneers faced severe food shortages in the 19th century because the Virgin River defied all human efforts to divert its waters. Seasonal floods tossed 19th-century irrigation structures out of their paths.
But despite its location in the arid Utah desert, St. George, like Steamboat, is experiencing a real estate boom. You wouldn’t know the city receives less than a foot of rainfall every year. Lawns are lush and immaculately cared for. Even homes where at least a portion of the yard is devoted to desert plantings are bright with blooming trees and shrubs despite the intense July heat.
In the midst of a protracted drought of historical dimensions, St. George is accelerating a decades-long trend of rapid growth. Community leaders in Washington County are in pursuit of still more water – enough to support a much larger population. And they are willing to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars to get it.
They think they have found a source of water that will allow the population of St. George to multiply seven-fold – from its current base of 70,000 to perhaps 480,000 – within 50 years.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act in May. It gives officials in Washington and Iron counties permission to pursue an ambitious plan to capture enough water to support such a large population.
To get the water, officials propose spending about $400 million to pump water out of Lake Powell and pipe it 120 miles west to their growing communities. The pipeline would deliver about 60,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to Utah communities and 10,000 acre-feet to lightly populated areas in Northwest Arizona, including the town of Kanab.
Some environmentalists are questioning whether it’s the best use of the water. Thompson thinks it’s an appropriate and prudent step to take.
“If we’re a free economy, then economic forces will drive what happens here,” Thompson said. The idea for the Lake Powell Pipeline “really originated with Larry Anderson (of the Utah Board of Water Resources). The more you look at it, the more sense it makes.”
Not everyone agrees with him.
“Do we really need to take water from a river where there really is no more water to be taken?” asked Richard Ingebretsen, president of the Glen Canyon Institute, in a column in the Canyon Country Zephyr. “Is growth in a desert a good thing when conservation isn’t the main priority?”
Lake Powell is at historically low levels. So how can Utah claim more water from the vast reservoir to help support growth in St. George?
The answer is that the water won’t really come from Lake Powell. Instead, the water that will flow through the 60-inch pipeline will be from resources originally stored in Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is on the Green River and straddles the Utah-Wyoming border. The water represents a portion of water that was returned to the state of Utah by the federal government after it built Flaming Gorge. It would be transferred to Lake Powell, where Southeastern Utah can access it – albeit at a hefty price.
Thompson said the water from Lake Powell that someday will fill the pipeline will need to be pumped over a ridge before it begins a long downhill run through an existing highway easement. St. George is almost 900 feet lower in elevation than Page, Ariz. The plan is to use that terrain advantage to harness gravity and generate enough hydroelectric power to defray a significant part of the cost of building the pipeline.
What about conservation?
Water conservation is a touchy subject in St. George. Thompson acknowledges that concurrent with the effort to plan and build the pipeline, it’s important for the community to cut per capita water consumption.
“We have to have a fairly aggressive water conservation plan,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to inculcate it into the mix. We don’t get to (build the pipeline) if we don’t have that program. We need to plan to reduce per capita water consumption by 25 percent.”
Others argue that St. George already consumes more water per capita than any other desert city of notable size in North America. And inexpensive municipal water rates throughout Utah provide little incentive to conserve.
In a June 2002 study about water consumption on the Colorado Plateau, Colorado College professor Walter Hecox said the residents of St. George consume far more water on a per capita basis than do residents of Tucson, Ariz.
“Currently, St. George has the highest per capita water consumption rate in the state, and possibly the nation,” Hecox’s colleague Jeremiah Centrella wrote. “Tucson, Ariz., has a similar climate and demography, yet its per capita consumption of 170 gallons per person per day is half of St. George’s 335 per capita. Most of the city’s lawns are Kentucky bluegrass, a species that requires enormous amounts of water to keep green.”
Thompson’s colleague at the Washington County Conservation District, Barbara Hjelle, counters that the statistics used in the Hecox study artificially inflate water consumption in St. George.
Hjelle contends that the per capita water consumption figures for Tucson deduct water used in industrial and institutional applications before the calculations are made. The figures for St. George do not, she said. Yet St. George provides services such as hospital care to a broader population than its own, driving up the apparent water consumption of its residents. St. George’s role as a regional commercial center means it indirectly supplies water to many people in the region who don’t show up in the city’s consumption figures, she said. Just more than half of water consumed in St. George is attributable to commercial and institutional use, she said. A more fair calculation might place per capita consumption at 240 gallons per day.
Still, the state of Utah acknowledges its residents are above-average consumers of water.
Utah is the second-driest state in the nation. The annual precipitation in St. George – 8.3 inches – is closer to the statewide average of 9 inches in Nevada, the driest state in the U.S.
Utah’s statewide per capita water use of 320 gallons per day is lower than that of Nevada but higher than the Western states average of 245 gallons and almost 40 gallons per day higher than the national average of 179 gallons.
When the Lake Powell Pipeline is in operation, perhaps before 2020, the water that comes from melting snow rushing out of the Wind River Mountain range 800 miles away in Wyoming will be put to use nourishing a rapidly expanding desert oasis in St. George.
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