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Wharton: Water projects can't be justified

Published October 12, 2011 10:30 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

News of big water projects with the potential to harm outdoor recreation keeps cropping up.

There was the Utah Legislature Water Task Force meeting in which it was revealed that all of the state's taxpayers might be on the hook for a billion dollar-plus pipeline to bring water from Lake Powell to St. George, Cedar City and Kanab.

As a Wasatch Front resident, I am already paying for the Central Utah Project. Why should I be asked to pay taxes for a southern Utah boondoggle when there are no guarantees that the water from Lake Powell will even be available in the future? Even if the water is available — and I doubt it will be — the outdoor recreation activities of boating and fishing at Lake Powell are more important to many Wasatch Front residents than is seeing St. George grow even larger. If southern Utah residents want this project, let them pay for it.



Then Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager Pat Mulroy wrote a piece for The Salt Lake Tribune editorial page claiming that opponents of her group's project to tap groundwater in the Great Basin for use in Las Vegas were using emotion and rhetoric instead of science.

Her piece offered not a shred of science to show tapping an underwater desert aquifer could be sustained over decades, would not harm the fragile desert environment, could potentially damage Great Basin National Park, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and the Great Salt Lake and what might happen if billions are invested only to discover that the aquifer can't be replenished on a long-term basis.

What if Las Vegas is allowed to grow on the basis of having this water and, 25 years down the line, the aquifer has been drained? The growth is there and there is no water. It is a scenario that could easily occur and, to my knowledge, has never been addressed.

Finally, there was the news that the Colorado Water Conservation Board will spend $72,000 to fund an exploratory study to look at the feasibility of taking 81 billion gallons of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir 560 miles in a pipeline to Colorado's Front Range. The cost of such a project, opposed by 87 percent of Wyoming voters according to a recent Trout Unlimited poll, would be $7 billion to $9 billion.

If you fish on the Green River, boat and fish on Flaming Gorge or, for that matter, want to use water from Lake Powell for southwestern Utah via another pipeline, this pipeline should be frightening.

The basic problem is simple. We live in a desert. We can try to use our engineering and plumbing skills to move water around but there is a strong chance that there simply isn't enough of it.

We caught a break this year in that we had near record snowfall in the Colorado Basin that helped refill Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Such winter weather patterns can buy us some time. But many climate scientists think that a prolonged drought in the overtaxed Colorado River Basin is inevitable.

That raises the question:

What if we build a pipeline from Lake Powell to southwestern Utah, another pipeline from Flaming Gorge to Colorado and still another from the Great Basin into Las Vegas and, ultimately, the water sources simply dry up?

The fact is that growth in the West's major cities such as Denver, Salt Lake, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and St. George has largely been based on the human belief that we can manipulate limited available water resources to provide for growing populations.

If there is, indeed, a long-term drought and if climate change is a reality, perhaps we might have to finally admit that we have grown as large as possible and the resources we have can no longer sustain us.

Of course, conservation could help. We might be able to figure out a way to take salt out of ocean water for agriculture and culinary needs. But the bottom line is that we are running out of water.

If you own a boat, love to fish and know that all sorts of wildlife species depend on water for their survival, growth beyond our ability to provide water also means all sorts of dire consequences.

We certainly need to use good science before plunging into these three costly projects. And the guess here is that good science will show that there simply isn't enough water available to make them sustainable enough to justify their cost.

wharton@sltrib.comTwitter @tribtomwharton

 

 

 

 

 

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