The Green Green Grass of Utah


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Golf courses! Water parks! Man-made lakes! If Utah has its way, the retiree oasis of St. George will explode with growth, turning red rock to bluegrass and slaking its thirst with a new billion-dollar pipeline from the Colorado River.

Let us now praise southern Utah!

Turns out that my own migration to Utah wasn’t unique. I was part of a historical exodus—let’s call it the Golden Diaspora—­beginning in the 1990s, when hordes of Californians split for the interior, jacking up home prices and residents’ ire. By 2012, a whopping 12 percent of people born in California had moved to other western states; 8 percent of Utahns were born in California. That’s more than 200,000 of us asking the waitresses at Mom’s Diner to sub avocado on that.

We’d also like some water, please. Utah is the second-driest state in the nation, and all that growth has strained the limited supply. The influx of newcomers has been most dramatic in sunny Washington County, where the average summer temperature hovers above 100 and the ground sees just eight inches of rain a year. Home of Zion National Park and the golfy sprawl of St. George, the county has jumped in population, from 26,000 to 165,000, since 1980; St. George is now the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America. The state forecasts that in 40 years the county will boom to half a million, which is like plunking down a whole new Albuquerque in the canyons.

Aerial view of St. George, Utah
St. George, Utah (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/Getty)

Thirteen golf courses bloom green amid desert cliffs. Capillary culs-de-sac pulse with turf. Plans are under way for a Caribbean-slash-Polynesian water park with a 900-foot lazy river, a seven-story slide, and an artificial wave pool for surfers. Bulldozers just broke ground on a master-planned tract called Desert Color, where 33,000 souls will dwell near the shores of—get this—man-made lakes! The drawings show denizens tanning on white-powder beaches and SUPing across waters that glisten like chunks of turquoise in the 300 days of annual sunshine. Washington County, in fact, guzzles more water per capita than any metro area in the Southwest.

To keep the water flowing, the state plans to dip a six-foot-diameter straw into Lake Powell—a reservoir of the Colorado River 140 miles to the east—then suck the water 2,000 vertical feet through five pumping stations and six hydroelectric plants, crossing the Paria River and what used to be Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The pipeline is currently mired in bureaucratic proceedings, but state leaders are pushing to get it permitted while President Trump is still in office, because his administration has proven friendly to industry. Ultimately, boosters predict, the Lake Powell Pipeline will deliver 86,000 acre-feet of water per year, enough to support a third of a million people. The price tag for that big hose: between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion, more than twice as much in today’s dollars as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Utah has every legal right to its acre-feet, but the Colorado River is already overallocated. It waters seven states, including the megalopolises of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. Plus, the river is suffering from 19 years of drought and rarely reaches the sea. If its two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, remain low—­Powell is at 52 percent of capacity, Mead at 39 percent—­everyone will have to start cutting back.

“There is no lack of water here,” Edward Abbey mused about the arid West, “unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

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