By Bill Weir, CNN Chief Climate Correspondent
Tue February 28, 2023
In a bright-red county in a state allergic to regulations, there is a ban on growing grass outside new businesses. Only 8% of a home’s landscaping can have a grass lawn in this booming corner of Utah, about a hundred miles northeast of Las Vegas.
And if any developers want to add another country club to this golfing mecca, “I don’t know where they would get the water from,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “And I’m telling you, I know where every drop of water is.”
Like lots of spots in the West, the combination of more people and less water makes for an uncertain future around St. George, Utah. While this winter’s generous snowpack could buy precious time, the entire Colorado River system remains in danger of crashing if water gets too low at Lakes Powell and Mead.
But that reality hasn’t stopped St. George from booming into the fastest growing metro area in the US two years running, according to the US Census Bureau, and Renstrom says that unless Utah builds a long-promised pipeline to pump water 140 miles from Lake Powell, their growth will turn to pain.
In the meantime, Lake Powell – the country’s second-largest reservoir – has struggled to serve even the places it currently provides water to. Last week it sank to the lowest water level since the reservoir was filled in the 1960s, and since 2000 has lost more than 150 feet.
“If we stop construction water, that act alone would lay off about 20% of our county,” Renstrom said. “We’ve made a commitment that we’re going to make sure to be good stewards of every single drop of water that’s already here and make sure we’re utilizing that. But when we look at our long-term growth and you know how much water we need, (the Lake Powell Pipeline) is still in our long-term plan.”
Washington County said it consumed about 50,000 acre feet of water in 2022, all of it supplied by the Virgin River which flows into the Colorado system and out of taps from Vegas to LA. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre to the depth of one foot – roughly 326,000 gallons.
A showdown over Colorado River water is setting the stage for a high-stakes legal battle
A plan to pump 80,000 acre feet of water a year from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir passed the Utah legislature in 2006 and met immediate opposition from environmental groups worried about fragile desert ecosystems. Fourteen dry years later in 2020, the Trump administration tried to fast-track the project’s environmental review but water managers from the other six Colorado River Basin states banded together to block it.
“The system is crashing and to be honest, it’s kind of incomprehensible to think of a diversion of that size that would serve 200,000 people in one county in southern Utah at this moment in time. There’s just not the water,” Matt Rice, Southwest Region Director of the nonprofit American Rivers told CNN. “We’re worried about every molecule of water that that we can deliver to Lake Powell and Lake Mead to protect critical hydroelectric infrastructure.”
While in legal limbo, the controversy brought fresh headlines in January when the mayor of the small Washington County town of Ivins called it “the Lake Powell pipe dream” during a public meeting.