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'Clearly a litany of impacts': Groups slam proposed Iron County water pipeline - Energy And Water Development Corp

‘Clearly a litany of impacts’: Groups slam proposed Iron County water pipeline

Mark Wintch throws fish food into a water storage pond on his cattle ranch in the Wah Wah Valley, a remote part of Beaver County, on Feb. 17. A proposed plan would pull water from the valley and two other nearby areas to supply the fast-growing Iron County area. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

CEDAR CITY — Water conservation groups, a representative from a Native American tribe, and even the commissioner of a neighboring county are taking aim at a proposed water pipeline that would increase the water supply for the fast-growing Cedar City area they argue Iron County doesn’t need.

Members of the Utah Rivers Council, Great Basin Water Network and Indian Peaks Band of the Paiute Tribe of Utah, as well as Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney all sounded off on the Pine Valley Water Supply Project on Wednesday, days before a public comment period ends on it. The project, estimated to cost $260 million, would take water out of Beaver County aquifers and transfer it to Iron County via a 70-mile long pipeline.

The Bureau of Land Management opened up public comment on its draft environmental impact statement back in January; the public comment period for the project wraps up Friday after the bureau extended the deadline. Opponents of the plan contend that outdated population forecast data is resulting in false inflation regarding the demand for outside water.

They say the district’s management plan, released in 2020, used old state population projections released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. But the institute drastically changed its Iron County population estimates in 2017 and again earlier this year.

“When you use more current population forecasts, you get (a small demand growth). And the difference between those two numbers is exactly 46% exaggeration of water needs,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. “In other words, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District used faulty data to exaggerate the future need in Iron County by 46%.”

Frankel also blasted Iron County’s water conservation goal to reduce 0.56% every year through 2070, saying it’s far less than goals in other drought-stricken communities, including the 2.6% outlined by Las Vegas between 2002 and 2020. He contends changing the conservation goal to “a very modest 1%” could get water usage levels back to 2020 levels by 2070, per the more recent population estimates.

He and other researchers also question the water district’s 2020 management plan because it uses figures published in 2012 by the University of Utah’s Kem Gardner Policy Institute. Those decade-old figures project Iron County’s population will reach 154,000 by 2070. However, last month, the institute analyzed new census data and projected the population will only grow to 105,000, 46% less than projected a decade ago.

On top of the cost of the project, opponents say it will hike up water rates in the region. They pointed to the district’s study that says the project scenario would increase water rates from 360% to 700% in 10 years.

“There’s no need to waste all of this money,” Frankel added. “Taxpayers … are being swindled out of money they don’t need to spend.”

This graph, presented by the Utah Rivers Council, pulls data from the Pine Valley Water Supply Project based on various needs. The orange line represents the water needs opponents of the plan say Iron County needs based on population estimates released in 2017 and 2022.
This graph, presented by the Utah Rivers Council, pulls data from the Pine Valley Water Supply Project based on various needs. The orange line represents the water needs opponents of the plan say Iron County needs based on population estimates released in 2017 and 2022. (Photo: Utah Rivers Council)

The reason for the pipeline

The pipeline has been in the works for some time. The Central Iron County Water Conservancy District notes that it filed for water rights in the Hamlin, Pine and Wah Wah valleys northwest of Cedar City back in 2006. The Pine and Wah Wah valleys are located in Beaver County.

Then three years ago, it was was decreed, through courts, 15,000 acre-feet of water from the Pine Valley and up to 11,275 acre-feet from the Wah Wah Valley.

Brent Hunter, chairman of the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, defended the project in an interview with the Deseret News last week. He said the district is currently operating at an annual water supply deficit of 7,000 acre-feet, and the ongoing drought has made it worse. He also contends almost every acre of the region’s agricultural land will dry up in the future without more water.

“Our water situation is pretty serious,” he said.

The project was put together using “sound science, as well as environmental, social, and cultural resource issues,” added Paul Briggs, the field manager for the bureau’s Cedar City field office, when the agency announced the project earlier this year. Should the plan go forward as scheduled, the water conservancy district currently expects construction to begin in 2027 before the pipeline is ready by as early as 2030.

The bureau is also willing to make amendments to the plan based on feedback in the comment process. Briggs pointed out the agency must also assess “potential effects on the heritage and history of the many people and Tribal nations who use these lands and resources.”

The fight against the plan

But Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, the chairwoman of the Indian Peaks Band of the Paiute Tribe of Utah, says they were never approached by either the bureau or conservancy district until the tail end of a recent study in October. She says the tribe has surface and aquifer rights that would be impacted by the pipeline, and only learned in late 2020 or early 2021 that the plan even existed.

“Ultimately, Cedar City wants to take tribal water in Pine Valley without consequences and proper consultation,” she said. “This new report underscores that Iron County’s water officials cannot be trusted with the numbers supporting the project. How could we ever trust them to respect our heritage and our culture and our water in Pine Valley?”

Whitney is equally irked. He lashed out at the pipeline concept all the way back in 2006 and hasn’t stopped his opposition against what he calls a “phony” plan. The only change he’s made since then is switching from a political approach to the matter to a scientific one.

In a presentation to the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council earlier Wednesday, the Nevada-based Great Basin Water Network executive director Kyle Roerink informed the council about three interconnected groundwater systems in Utah’s West Desert and in eastern Nevada.

The underground water in Pine Valley moves north to the Wah Wah Valley and continues up west-central Utah into the Tooele Valley before reaching the Fish Springs Flat. That’s in the southern portion of the Great Salt Lake’s groundwater system. That means most of the water that would be pulled from aquifers in the plan “is already being used by somebody else,” Roerink explained.

The groundwater systems are important, and last year’s poor runoff was blamed on snowpack mostly going toward recharging groundwater than toward the state’s reservoirs. The way these systems are connected transforms the pipeline from a neighborly dispute to a regional one.

“It doesn’t just affect Beaver County; it affects the whole west desert of the state of Utah, including the Great Salt Lake and also parts of Nevada,” Whitney said. “It is such a detrimental situation to stick a straw in the ground out there — there are several of them — to send to Iron County when there’s not even a recharge in that aquifer to support what they want to suck out of the ground.”

Recent population expectations, tribal rights and underground water science are reasons why opponents to the plan believe the pipeline will ultimately not come to fruition, although they won’t say that’s a certainty, either.

As a public comment period wraps on the draft environmental impact statement, there is no set timetable for the final version. Should the ultimate decision be delayed years, Frankel points out that a different presidential administration may have different views on the plan.

It’s also not very clear what type of legal standing the Bureau of Land Management has in its decision.

“There’s clearly a litany of impacts. … But does the BLM actually have the power to turn the project down because of a lack of purpose and need?” Frankel acknowledged, adding he’s heard from federal agencies in the past who told him they ruled on a project solely on the legal standing rather than the opinion of it.

The project could also ultimately end up dealing with the same hurdles the Southern Nevada Water Authority previously had in trying to snag water from the same region, Roerink added. That attempt resulted in decades of litigation before it was finally scrapped in 2020, according to Nevada Public Radio.

Only time will tell if that’s the case with the Pine Valley Water Supply Project.

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