A tiny minnow, a big pipeline and a growing water demand – St George News


The least chub is a small minnow species native to Utah with just a handful of wild populations remaining, photo location unspecified, Oct. 11, 2016 | Photo courtesy of BLM via Flickr, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITYPlans to increase the Southern Utah water supply may be in jeopardy if efforts to protect an inconspicuous fish species prove successful.

2016 file photo of water coming from the test pump in the Pine Valley area, West Desert, Utah | Photo courtesy of Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, St. George News / Cedar City News

In response to the proposed Pine Valley Water Supply Project, a 66-mile pipeline from well sites in the West Desert Pine Valley near the border between Beaver County and Iron County, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition seeking endangered species protection for the least chub. The petition was submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Sept. 30, shortly after a draft environmental impact statement for the water project was published.

The least chub is a native minnow species that is found only in Utah. The fish once thrived throughout the Bonneville Basin but is now reduced to just five remaining wild populations. Several factors contributed to the species’ decline, most notably habitat loss due to agriculture and water demand. Three of the surviving populations inhabit springs and wetlands in Snake Valley, which borders the West Desert Pine Valley area from where the pipeline project would draw its water. 

Krista Kemppinen, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said it is important to protect the remaining populations that have been able to survive.

“They’re also already facing other threats,” she said, “so all of that, compounded with the proposed groundwater pumping, is what triggered us to resubmit our petition almost 15 years after the first petition.”

In a press release accompanying the center’s petition, Kemppinen said the pipeline was an existential threat to least chubs, and only the Endangered Species Act could protect the unique fish from development.

Least chubs have a maximum size of 2 1/2 inches and rarely live beyond three years, photo location not specified, Sept. 16, 2009 | Photo courtesy of Esther J. Stokes, St. George News / Cedar City News

The Central Iron County Water Conservancy District – which heads the pipeline project – contends that there won’t be impacts to the least chub. For one, all parties agree that least chubs do not inhabit the springs, streams or wetlands in the immediate vicinity of the pipeline or wells.

In addition, Paul Monroe, general manager for the water district, said evidence from United States Geological Survey reports of the past and present indicate that well sites are sufficiently distant from areas the chubs inhabit.

“We went back through all of the USGS reports and looked at the springs throughout the area,” he said. “The research shows that most of those are perched springs – in other words, the water comes out of the mountains into springs above the level of the groundwater. So those are not presumed to be connected, and that’s what the hydrologists and geologists have said throughout all the years.”

Monroe said experts investigating the environmental impacts on behalf of the water conservancy district even extended their area of study over 100 miles from the well sites. While least chubs and other sensitive species do occur within that radius, the investigators concluded that the new pipeline would only decrease spring discharge in chub habitat by less than 1%.

However, the Center for Biological Diversity hired its own team of hydrogeologists through Roux, an environmental consulting and management firm, and Kemppinen said their hydrological report called into question some of the assumptions and conclusions made by previous surveys and in the draft environmental impact statement.

In this 2016 file photo, water leaks from a test pump in the Pine Valley area, West Desert, Utah | Photo courtesy of Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, St. George News / Cedar City News

“We’re claiming that you would have trickle-down effects through changing hydraulic gradients,” she said. “The pipeline would create an area of drawdown that would continue to essentially radiate outward from the pumping sites.”

The Roux report also concluded that groundwater pumping, especially at the rates projected for the pipeline, will have long-term impacts to water availability in Snake Valley and beyond. There might not even be enough supply to meet the goals of the water conservancy, the report states.

Ultimately, the goal of the petition and the protests raised by the Center for Biological Diversity is not to stop all development, Kemppinen said.

“Within the last couple weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that 23 other species are now extinct,” she said. “We just want to make sure that moving forward we try to halt the loss of species and to focus on developing better. Ultimately if ecosystems and nature are degraded, that’s going to impact our wellbeing as well.”

The Pine Valley Water Supply Project

Proposed by the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, the Pine Valley Water Supply Project is estimated to deliver 15,000 acre-feet annually upon its completion.

Currently, the bulk of Cedar City’s water supply comes from groundwater pumping in the Cedar Valley. While the Utah Division of Water Rights has pegged the aquifer’s safe yield at 21,000 acre-feet-year, it is currently pumped at 28,000 afy, with the deficit going back for decades.

A map from the draft environmental impact statement showing the extent of the proposed pipeline along with supporting infrastructure | Image courtesy of the BLM/EPA, St. George News / Cedar City News

“We’re in a situation where we are mining our aquifer, so we’re taking more out of the aquifer annually than what’s being replenished,” Monroe said. “The state has come in and said, ‘You’ve got a problem, you’ve got to fix it. If you don’t, we’re going to start taking water away.’”

With projected significant population growth expected in the coming decades, Cedar City stands to lose 80% of its water rights over that same span, Monroe said, adding that acquiring water through other means will become increasingly cost-prohibitive.

The engineering, planning and financing for the pipeline would take place over the next five to six years, with a goal for construction to begin in 2027 and end in 2029. 

The final price tag for the project is around $260 million, with construction costs spread over water bills and impact fees. According to the impact statement, Cedar City ratepayers could see a monthly bill increase of $54 or more above the current $17 average by 2030. Monroe said the 320% increase over current water rates is staggering, but every other alternative is more expensive in the long term.

When the official environmental impact statement is published by the Bureau of Land Management, there will be a 45-day comment period where members of the public and other stakeholders can offer comments on the proposed pipeline.

Monroe said it will be a great opportunity to hear from residents and concerned citizens about a host of issues, and after the comment period ends there will be time for the water conservancy district and its partners to see if anything was missed in the course of the initial investigation.

“We’ve reached out hundreds of miles to see what the impacts will be, and I feel pretty confident that there will not be significant impacts,” he said. “We’ve been working on solutions to our water issue for decades, especially this one [the pipeline]. We just want to be in a position where we’re ready to go with community support and we can go out there and get it done.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.





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