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Arizona joins Western states in blasting Utah plan to tap Colorado River water
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Arizona joins Western states in blasting Utah plan to tap Colorado River water

In a highly unusual move, Arizona and five other Colorado River Basin states are challenging a proposed pipeline that would divert to a booming southwestern Utah community almost as much river water as Tucson uses every year.

Six of seven river basin states – all but Utah – wrote the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Tuesday, asking it to delay publishing a final environmental review of the proposed Lake Powell pipeline and making final decision on it. They want the bureau to wait until all seven states take time to “reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns” about it.

The letter is highly unusual because until now, the river basin states have managed to work out various issues regarding the management of the over-allocated river without breaking out into major, public disputes. In fact, the letter mentions that history as one reason for seeking the delays on this pipeline.

“The Colorado River Basin states face daunting challenges as populations continue to grow, water demands increase, and supplies diminish,” the states’ letter said. But so far, the states have managed to stave off crippling shortages on the river through a series of collaborative efforts, the letter said.

It’s that approach – not the bureau’s planned decision making process for the pipeline – that will best resolve the pipeline controversy, the states said.

The bureau had no immediate comment on the states’ letter. It was signed by Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and water officials of the other five basin states – New Mexico, California, Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming.

Utah’s Division of Water Resources Director Todd Adams said in a statement that his agency will use the next several months to address the other states’ concerns.

“As Colorado River Basin States, we’ve resolved complex challenges and concerns before, and we will do the same now,” Adams said, without directly saying if the agency supports a delay in the federal process to approve the pipeline. “We remain committed to working with the other basin states to mitigate their legal and operational concerns raised by Utah’s intent to use a portion of its Colorado River allotment to provide water to Washington County.”

The pipeline has been a major source of contention for many years between environmentalists, tribal interests and officials in Utah and the St. George area, where the pipeline’s water would go. The 140-mile, underground pipeline would deliver up to 86,249 acre-feet of water annually to serve expected future growth in the St. George area in Washington County, one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. The Utah Division of Water Resources estimates the project’s cost at $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion.

It would take water from an overtaxed Colorado River, water that Arizona and the other basin states are now using via previously approved water projects such as the $4 billion Central Arizona Project that delivers river water to Tucson and Phoenix. Tucson uses about 90,000 acre feet of CAP water annually and recharges another 50,000 or so acre feet into the ground every year to serve future water needs.

The Bureau of Reclamation published its draft environmental impact statement on the pipeline in June. It's scheduled to publish a final environmental statement on Nov. 21st, and will issue its final decision in January.

The Lake Powell Pipeline is needed to satisfy expected growth in the county from 186,000 people today to 468,000 in 2060, Utah and county officials say. In its draft environmental impact statement, the reclamation agency says the area’s existing water supplies aren’t nearly enough to serve that many people, setting the stage for major water shortages by 2060 without the pipeline.

“More than 20 years of planning have gone into the Lake Powell Pipeline to meet the needs of Washington County’s growing population and to diversify the area’s water supply. Without the project, the county’s economic viability and water security will be harmed,” Utah water director Adams said in his statement.

Opponents in the environmental community have said this pipeline would be a highly wasteful, overpriced boondoggle, diverting water from a river whose supply has already fallen by close to 20 percent since 2000, in part due to human-caused climate change. The opponents say more intensive water conservation efforts could satisfy the St. George area’s water needs without it. They point to the county’s per person water use of 305 gallons daily – far higher than most Arizona cities – although county officials have said they’ve shaved 1 million gallons a year off their water use since 2000, reports from Utah newspapers say.

“These letters of opposition from outside Utah demonstrate how wildly out of touch the Utah Division of Water Resources has been on this dinosaur water project,” said Zachary Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council, which has spearheaded the opposition. “The Lake Powell Pipeline needs to die and we need new leadership in Utah that understands what the 21st Century means for the West."

The basin states’ letter Tuesday doesn’t address these hot-button questions. It focuses on more abstract legal issues. The water diversion proposed for the pipeline raises “significant questions” concerning the 1922, seven-state Colorado River compact, and the 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin compact, which covers the four Upper Basin states, the letter said.

The questions involve how the water diversion for the pipeline would be legally accounted for, and what the letter calls “operational issues under the Law of the River.” That term refers to a series of laws, court cases and compacts that the states rely on to govern how the river is managed.

The pipeline’s draft environmental impact statement says “Utah is addressing these questions,” but they remain unresolved, the letter said.

In fact, the pipeline’s prospects for being built are “substantially diminished” if these issues must be addressed through the bureau’s ongoing environmental review, rather than through collaboration in the fashion that the basin states have worked on for years, the letter said.

“Moreover, we believe the probability of multi-year litigation over (a federal pipeline 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 states’ letter said. “That is not a recipe for creating the kind of meaningful and positive change needed to sustain the Colorado River in the coming decades.”

Contact Tony Davis at 520-806-7746 or tdavis@tucson.com. Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987.

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