The Trump administration has put one of the largest new water projects on the Colorado River on the fast track, raising concerns among environmentalists.
Utah first proposed building a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border more than a decade ago. The plan, however, was waylaid by environmental and other reviews during the Obama administration.
But last fall, the Utah Division of Water Resources updated the proposal, removing a hydropower plant and cutting $100 million from its price tag.
The move also changed which federal agency had jurisdiction over it — from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Reclamation signaled to the state that it wants to move swiftly on the plan, in recognition of how it was stalled at FERC, said Joel Williams of the Utah Division of Water Resources. The agency is working on an "aggressive" schedule for the review, he added.
Utah wants to divert more than 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell, one of the Colorado River's main reservoirs, and shuttle it to St. George and other communities in the southern part of the state. The project is expected to cost between $1 billion and $1.7 billion, according to the state.
The state has characterized the project as key to securing water reliability for its quickly growing population.
But environmentalists and conservationists say the plan is a misguided attempt to wring more water out of the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people and millions of acres of farmland. They argue that the waterway is already overdrafted and is struggling with the effects of climate change, including more frequent and intense droughts.
Groups including Living Rivers, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity <a href="<a%20href=" https:>submitted comments to Reclamation last week as the agency began the National Environmental Policy Act review.
"The Colorado River is tapped out," said Jen Pelz, the wild rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians. "The Lake Powell Pipeline is part of the Upper Basin state's feeding frenzy to squeeze every last drop out of the river before reality sets in and someone finally says enough is enough."
The groups said the environmental review must take into account climate change impacts, including how it will affect water availability, as well as endangered and threatened species.
But of particular concern for the groups is the timing of the proposal and review.
The Colorado River's seven basin states are managing water under a new Drought Contingency Plan, an agreement to safeguard water levels at the river's two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, through cutbacks. The two lakes are critical water buffers during droughts (Greenwire, March 20, 2019).
Powell is the primary bank for the upper basin states — Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico — which do not use their full allocation of Colorado River water. What they don't use flows to Lake Powell, which then releases water downriver to Lake Mead, which serves the lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona.
Under a 1922 compact, Utah is allocated about 23% of the Upper Basin's water. It currently uses about 72% of that allotment.
The state has pushed back on criticism of the project based on Colorado River water availability.
"All water providers, including the state of Utah, understand the level of concern some have regarding the perceived uncertainty associated with the use of Colorado River water," Eric Millis said last year when he was director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
"The Colorado River is reliable," he said. "We work closely with our federal partners and other basin states to plan for future needs and mitigate potential impacts."
Even with an accelerated timeline, the environmental review will still take years, said Williams, the assistant director of development at Utah's Division of Water Resources. He anticipates the final analysis will be released early next year, but then it would take a couple of years for designing the project and another four to six years to build it.
So, he said, between 2028 and 2030 is the earliest the pipeline could deliver water to St. George.
Environmental groups charge that the state and Reclamation are trying to get the additional water diversion on the books before new operational guidelines for the Colorado River are finalized. Those are due in 2026.
"That's a major part of this push," said Sarah Stock of Living Rivers. "St. George doesn't need the water now, they won't need it for decades. They are trying to use this water while they still have claim to it."
Reclamation's project manager in Utah did not respond to a phone message.
Williams said that's not the case and that the timing is more a reflection of Reclamation recognizing how long the project was stuck under FERC's jurisdiction.
"It was never planned that way," he said. "It's kind of a coincidence of timing."
But he added that a lot is likely to change on the Colorado River in the coming years.
"It's an exciting time for the Colorado River," he said, "that's for sure."