As St. George grows, where will its water come from?
Stunning red rock terrain, warm weather, and low housing prices are drawing thousands of remote workers and retirees to St. George, making the southwest Utah city among the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation. The greater Washington County population of 180,000 is now poised to more than double by 2050.
St. George is also thirsty. It has 11 golf courses within its 78 square mile borders, and its residents use twice the amount of water per person per day than the national average. Only recently did the county begin implementing more aggressive water conservation efforts and rules banning grass in new retail and commercial developments.
Local officials now say the area will run out of water within a decade. In response, they have taken drastic—and controversial—steps to ensure future hydration: a $1.3 billion to $2 billion, 140-mile pipeline to retrieve 27 billion gallons of water out of the Colorado River that feeds into Lake Powell. The pipeline has been in the works for 16 years, but Utah is pushing forward on a supplemental draft environmental impact statement with the Bureau of Reclamation for the project. The statement claims that the state has not been taking its full “share” of allocated water under River Law between seven Western states.
“Everybody talks about water here,” says Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which supplies water to St. George and most of the rest of the county. “There’s a lot of energy and anxiety and stress about how we’re going to move forward.”
The big problem with the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline is that the 100-year-old water law governing the Colorado River didn’t anticipate a megadrought—the worst in 1200 years—nor did it anticipate climate change. Now, there is simply not enough water for St. George to take from Lake Powell and the river. Add to that the six Western states are lawyering up to fight the pipeline to preserve their fair share of the water.
The pipeline adds tension to an already heated water crisis. Seven states, 40 million people, two nations and three tribes, 4.5 million acres of irrigated agriculture, and every major city in the Southwest are dependent on the Colorado River. Yet river flows are down 20 percent since 2000, says Brad Udall, a Colorado State University climate and water scientist. He and numerous scientists concluded that half of the water loss is due to higher temperatures from human-caused climate change, while the other half is due to lower precipitation. As temperatures heat up, scientists expect to see an additional 10-20 percent loss in flow by 2050.
The Colorado River feeds huge reservoirs, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are also hitting record water level lows. Lake Powell is down 70 percent since 2000. Back then, it was 95 percent full; today, it’s just 25 percent full, Udall says.
This summer, the US Department of the Interior demanded that Western states reduce their water consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet within 60 days, which is 15-30 percent of all water usage on the river. If they didn’t do so, the federal government would impose mandatory water cuts for the first time in history.
California very recently agreed to cut its water withdrawals by 400,000 acre-feet and Arizona took steps to cut its consumption. Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming, which comprise the river’s Upper Basin, have yet to unveil concrete steps to cut water use.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District, which provides water to St. George and most of Washington County, expects that the amount of water it wants to divert from the river and Lake Powell will increase incrementally over time. “The pipeline is one of many things we’re looking at, but it’s one that we feel is viable,” Renstrom says.
Other states would disagree with the assertion that it’s viable. A 2020 letter to Secretary of Interior David Bernhard from top water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming states, “We believe the probability of multi-year litigation over a Lake Powell Pipeline….is high, and that certain Law of the River questions properly left to discussions and resolution between the states are likely to be raised in such suits.”
The legal battle would likely center on Article III D of the Colorado River Compact, which essentially says the Upper Basin states shall not cause the flow of the river to fall below 75 million acre-feet over 10 running years. Much of Utah’s water use and future use will depend upon how that article gets interpreted.
Utah claims it has the right to use Colorado River water because Upper Basin states have historically supplied Colorado River flows to the Lower Basin in excess of their 1922 Compact obligations. Over a 10-year period, Utah has delivered 88 million acre-feet of water to Lower Basin states, and that should dictate—and potentially reduce—future flows to Lower Basin states going forward.
Without climate change, an argument could be made that it’s a fixed amount, Udall says. But with climate change, no one knows what “shall not cause the flows to fall below 75 million acre-feet over 10 years” really means. That’s especially when the Upper Basin is using only about 60 percent of what it was promised in 1922.
But the flow obligation since 2000 has only been met by draining Lake Powell—the actual inflows to Powell have been less than what is needed to meet a strict definition of Article III D, Udall says. Over the past 23 years, inflows tend to average about 12.2 million acre-feet. With Lower Basin use at around 10 million acre-feet and Upper Basin use at 4.5 million acre-feet, “Something has to give soon, as the Powell and Mead can no longer supply the difference,” Udall says. And with Powell so low, the strict definition could be violated by 2025 or 2026.
Western water law’s priority system worked when there were a handful of farmers and miners downstream, Udall says, but today there are millions of people and only hundreds of agricultural users in the Lower Basin. “We’re using 19th-century water laws, 20th-century infrastructure, and 21st-century population growth,” he says.
There’s a chance the federal government may step in. A 2007 water agreement has an emergency clause that says the federal government reserves the right to act unilaterally in cases of public health and safety or infrastructure safety. This spring, federal officials expressed concern about those exact health, safety, and infrastructure risks amid Lake Powell’s dropping water levels.
Lake Powell supplies water to 40 million people in the Southwest and is a major source of hydropower. The water pressure through Glen Canyon Dam’s 15-foot pipes spins turbines and powers eight generators that power 5.8 million homes and businesses in seven states. It also provides backup power for the Palo Verde Generating Station (PVGS), a nuclear power plant in Phoenix.
Many water experts are concerned about the dam’s reliability to release water if its levels drop even more. The dam was built in the 1950s, and if water levels drop, water will pass through smaller tubes that haven’t seen regular use. “It seems silly to blunder into a new operating regime assuming the same risks when it’s a completely different way to get water out of the dam, and we need 100 percent reliability,” Udall says.
There’s also a question of whether or not St. George truly needs more water and if it can sustain with conservation alone. The Utah Rivers Council suggests that St. George and greater Washington County have enough water to support its population without tapping Lake Powell. Albuquerque and Tucson—which have more arid climates than St. George—both support larger populations of 678,000 and 731,236 with just about 100,000 acre-feet of water. The Washington County Water District, by comparison, estimates it will need more water—about 184,000 acre-feet—to support 595,000 people.
“Washington County will still have a surplus of water in its existing water supply without the Lake Powell pipeline,” says Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit protecting Utah’s watersheds. “When I use the word propaganda or the word deception, I mean it.”
"There’s a lot of energy and anxiety and stress about how we’re going to move forward.”
The Utah Rivers Council
Renstrom disagrees with Frankel, explaining that Washington County’s water system is complex. In addition to providing water to a growing population, the district must also protect endangered species. Some of the available water is not always potable, either. The water district will invest $600 million to expand its water recycling systems, and it is in the midst of designing and constructing three small reservoirs, one large reservoir, and miles of pipeline and pump stations.
St. George residents, who receive water from surface and groundwater from the Virgin River watershed, a tributary of the Colorado River, haven’t been the most responsible with their taps. They use an average of 304 gallons of water per person per day—an amount twice the national average, three times Phoenix and Albuquerque, and twice what Las Vegas, Denver, and Los Angeles residents use, according to data from the Utah Rivers Council.
Real estate developers advertise the area for relocation and retirement, touting year-round golfing on 11 courses—in addition to seven other courses located within 20 miles of the city. St. George’s five public golf courses have witnessed a surge and all-time high profits since the pandemic.
But the region can’t sustainably offer the same golfing lifestyle as Florida does, says Utah State University climate professor Simon Wang. “It’s against common sense.”
Utah golf courses use about 38 million gallons of water each day, enough to fill about 58 Olympic size swimming pools, according to a recent Geological Survey. And in St. George, golf courses can lose 10 times more water than those in Florida because of the atmosphere and climate, Wang says.
The Utah Rivers Council
Renstrom says St. George public golf courses have a goal to reduce water use by 40 percent, and city ordinances now prevent new private course projects from tapping into municipal water—they must bring their own water rights. The county has also ushered in more aggressive water conservation measures. Turf will be banned in new commercial, industrial and retail projects, and grass will be limited to 8 percent of new residential landscaping.
In May, the county announced it had replaced 115,000 square feet of sod, which might sound like a big achievement. But in reality, it is just 2 acres of grass or the equivalent of a few houses. “There is a lot of gamesmanship around water conservation,” says Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council.
Frankel says St. George must change the way it prices water to truly drive conservation. The state allows Utah’s largest water conservation districts to charge a property tax on homes, businesses, and cars, and that money covers a big chunk of those water companies’ revenue. Utah residents may not know the true cost of the water they use because it’s hidden in a property tax, Frankel says. Public institutions like St. George golf courses also don’t pay taxes for the large amounts of water they use.
Other cities, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, use tiered water pricing that dramatically jumps in cost as you use more water. Utah Rivers Council data shows that St. George charges close to $1 for 5,000 gallons of water per month and just over $2 for up to 50,000 gallons. Tucson, meanwhile, charges $2 per 1,000 gallons used, and the price doubles when residents use 5,000 gallons and doubles again at 12,000 gallons.
Renstrom says the property tax collected by the water district is used for more than water deliveries; it includes protecting critical habitat, watershed management, flood control, fire prevention services, groundwater protection, and recreation. Water pricing also will change in January. The district will be imposing an excess water use fee in 2023 to target high water users, and it has proposed a new water rate structure for new construction that discourages heavy water use during winter months.
Renstrom says many St. George residents are retirees on fixed incomes, and the water district wants to be sensitive to them in pricing. “They’re not water abusers,” he says.
Meantime, the water district will look for more water in multiple places, even beyond Lake Powell. In April, the Washington County Water Conservancy District submitted a plan for underground water rights to drill for groundwater along the Hurricane fault line, which starts at the north end of Cedar Valley and goes south across the Grand Canyon. The district plans to divert 12,900 acre-feet of water from these aquifers annually into Sand Hollow Reservoir.
Nearby towns and residents have opposed the drilling over concerns about how it may impact existing water rights. There’s no guarantee there will be water found, either. Utah State professor Wang conducted research that found groundwater in southwest Utah is shrinking faster than neighboring regions.
Renstrom says that may be true generally in the region, but he believes there are still flush aquifers, and Washington County intends to tap them. Outsiders, he says, continue to unfairly pick on St. George when it comes to water.
“They call us water wasters, but that’s not true,” he says. “Our water system is very complex. And as a licensed civil engineer, I know where our water is and what’s going on. We need to develop our local supply—or there is a certain point where we do run out.”