This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It should not require a platoon of university economists, active and emeritus, to raise such an obvious point. But before the state of Utah floats maybe $1.8 billion in taxpayer-backed bonds to build the long-planned Lake Powell Pipeline, somebody had better have a pretty solid idea of how — and by whom — that debt will be repaid.

At least it can be said that state officials have been warned.

A letter from 22 current and former faculty economists from the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University — addressed to the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House — warns that the annual cost of repaying the pipeline's debt stands to make water costs for its beneficiaries so high that they'd be better off doing what pipeline opponents, and there are many of them, have been urging for years: Conserve water.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District, supplier for the rapidly growing population in and around St. George, has long been drooling over the prospect of building a 140-mile-long pipeline to carry some 28 billion gallons of water annually from Lake Powell in south-central Utah to the thirsty lawns and golf courses of Washington and Kane counties.

The Legislature kicked off the paper trail back in 2006. A major milestone will come as soon as Tuesday, when the district is expected to issue what's called a Preliminary Licensing Proposal. That's something federal officials need to sign off on before the construction can begin.

Critics of the plan rightly worry that one key thing the PLP is expected to lack is both an estimated cost — ballparked by others as $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion — and, even more importantly, a means for raising the money.

The pipeline, if it is built, would be a Utah Division of Water Resources project. The state would borrow the money, with the understanding that Washington and Kane county water customers would pay the debt, through a combination of water bills, impact fees and property taxes.

Fair enough. Except the economists warn that the districts would have to hike those rates, fees or taxes, or some combination of the three, by such exorbitant amounts that the resulting water would be practically unaffordable, stymieing the very population growth the pipeline is supposed to serve.

Well, that's one way to encourage conservation in an area that is known for its wasteful habits. But it would leave both the districts and the state on the hook for billions in debt. A debt that, between the high costs of construction and a Colorado River water supply that's likely to shrink due to climate change, could be an extremely heavy burden.

Word from the water district is that the rest of us need not worry our pretty little heads about the debt, as they've got some kind of secret plan for repaying it without more than doubling hook-up fees or raising water rates maybe 600 percent.

Now that's a trick a lot of us would like to know when we're out hunting for a mortgage or a car loan.

The Lake Powell Pipeline should not be allowed to take one more step toward reality until we see exactly what that repayment plan is.

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