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Pipeline Dreams: Why the Lake Powell Pipeline is Costly, Unnecessary and Violates Federal Law

Pipeline Dreams: Why the Lake Powell Pipeline is Costly, Unnecessary and Violates Federal Law

Grace Patrick

Like many western states, Utah finds itself addressing the issue of long-term water security. While some lawmakers and interested parties advocate for conservation and smarter allocation, others support unsustainable initiatives that promise to do more harm than good. In 2006, the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act was passed in Utah.[1] Supported by the Utah Division of Water Resources, the Act proposes a large diversion of the Colorado River to meet the alleged future water needs of Southwestern Utah, specifically Washington and Kane Counties.[2]

The importance of the Colorado River cannot be overstated.[3] Seven states including Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada depend on the river and all claim entitlement to some of the water.[4] Supporters of the Lake Powell Pipeline project rely on the 1922 Colorado River Compact to justify Utah’s entitlement to additional water.[5] According to Utah’s governor and legislators, the water diverted by the pipeline is part of Utah’s share of the Colorado River meaning Utah has a right to divert the water and put it to beneficial use.[6] The original water allotment of the Colorado River in the Colorado River Compact assumed that average annual flow of the river was 15 million-acre feet.[7] Actual water supply data of the Colorado River Basin does not support the Compact drafters’ original assumption meaning a project of this proportion would overtax an increasingly stressed river basin.[8]

In addition to issues of feasibility, experts project that the pipeline will cost over 2 billion dollars, an amount that will require increases in water rates and property taxes in Southwestern Utah.[9] Proponents of the pipeline erroneously claim that the costly project is necessary because the region is running out of water, but the supply and demand figures these advocates use to justify the diversion are based on outdated and faulty calculations that do not reflect the areas actual need. [10]

In Part I of this Note, I contend that the Lake Powell Pipeline is costly, unnecessary, and will violate federal law and should therefore be abandoned in favor of more sustainable and practical alternatives. This Note will begin by detailing the history of the Colorado River Basin, which will supply the proposed pipeline’s water. Part II will then detail the specifics of the proposed pipeline project. Next, in Part III, this Note will look to the practical and policy reasons the pipeline was proposed as well as the counter arguments from concerned groups that highlight the risks associated with the project. Part IV will then look to the legal objections to the project and how, in its current proposed plan, the pipeline will violate the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Finally, Part V will advocate for the abandonment of the Lake Powell Pipeline project and other large water diversion proposals in favor of more viable, cost effective alternatives that the state of Utah can implement. These alternatives will serve as a primer for other western states face with water uncertainty as options law makers should considers prior to unnecessarily costly and environmentally damaging action like the Lake Powell Pipeline.

[1] The Lake Powell Pipeline; Water for Today and Tomorrow, Wash. Cty Water Conservancy Dist., (last visited Nov. 26, 2018).

[2] Lake Powell Pipeline; What is the Lake Powell Pipeline and Why is it a Bad Idea?, Utah Rivers Council, (last visited Jan. 27, 2019).  

[3]See Brendan Boepple, The Colorado River Basin: An Overview, Colo. Coll.; State of the Rockies Project 2011–12 Research Team (2012) 25, 25 (“[O]ften referred to as the life blood of the American Southwest.”).


[5] Amelia Nuding, Lake Powell Pipeline: Unnecessary and Too Expensive, Western Res. Advocates, (last visited Jan. 27, 2019).

[6]Lake Powell Pipeline, Sierra Club; Utah Chapter, (last visited Nov. 28, 2018).

[7]Barton H. Thompson et al., Legal Control of Water Resources; Cases and Materials 1016, 1019 (6th ed. 1986).

[8]See Connie A. Woodhouse et al, Updated Stream Reconstruction for the Upper Colorado River Basin, 42 Water Resources Research WO5415 (2016) (finding that records suggest that natural flows of the river at Lee Ferry averaged approximately 12.4 maf between 2000 to 2015); The Colorado River- A Reliable Source, Wash. Cty Water Conservancy Dist., visited Nov. 26, 2018) (“The [Lake Powell Pipeline’s] diversion from Lake Powell is ‘one of the most firm water supplies in Utah’s allocation of the Upper Colorado River Basin,’ according to Kent Jones, P.E., State Engineer, Utah Division of Water Rights”). 


[10]Nuding, supra note 5.

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