Roman aquaducts of new West: water pipes

Cities like St. George, Utah, want to transport water long distances to support population growth.

Here in the stark redrock canyons of Washington County, it's hard to escape the larger-than-life stature of Ron Thompson. It isn't just his physical size that's imposing, though at 6-feet, 8 inches tall and 340 pounds he does dwarf most NFL linemen.

It's that Mr. Thompson is, in the eyes of some, a visionary. The affable attorney has grand dreams of advancing economic progress in the middle of the desert by moving vast quantities of water through an erector set of connecting tubes.

He is urging local authorities to build a $400-million pipeline that would take water out of Lake Powell - one of the nation's premier recreation areas - and channel it 120 miles north to St. George, Utah, a sprawling mecca for Sun Belt retirees.

The Lake Powell pipeline, like a handful of other water projects in the region, represents the next phase in man's enduring quest to harness the scarcest resource in the American West.

For decades, landscape engineering revolved around building massive dams that would make water available for crops, cows, and industry. But dam building has become too costly and controversial. Now the emphasis is more on using water to support unbridled population growth in the arid region - and to get it there by pipeline.

Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix have long loomed as expanding desert capitals. But University of Colorado law professor and water-policy expert Charles Wilkinson calls the Lake Powell project the "prototype" of water projects that will give rise to new instant cities. In turn, he says, these areas represent environmental challenges that will profoundly affect the future of the wild and arid West.

Since World War II, the Western interior states have experienced a four-fold increase in human population, from 8 million to 34 million people. As a result, neighboring southern California is now proposing pipelines to carry water from distant basins to suburbs pushing deeper into the Mojave Desert. There is also a nascent plan to erect a pipeline across northern Arizona, to bring water from the Colorado River to Flagstaff.

But Utah's designs may be the most ambitious. "The term 'Lake Powell pipeline' somehow sounds so innocuous," says Professor Wilkinson, a critic of the project. "People think of a garden hose or a six-inch tube, but in fact it would transport an enormous amount of water."

Wilkinson says St. George's annual stake of 70,000 acre feet would fill an area the size of a football field with a retaining wall extending 24 miles into the sky. The Colorado river system, he adds, is already perilously overcommitted to downstream users.

For Thompson, however, the pipeline wouldn't just fulfill a modern vision of prosperity in which the desert blooms; he's also carrying out the prophecy of famous Mormon spiritual leader Brigham Young.

In 1861, Young traveled by buggy to the site of present-day St. George and pronounced: "There will yet be built, between those volcanic ridges, a city, with spire, towers, and steeples, with homes containing many inhabitants."

Years later, his vision is becoming a reality. Known as the "Dixie" of Utah, St. George is notorious for its broiling-hot summers. Once the home of Mormon cotton farmers, this land of sandstone, yucca, and desert tortoises has seen a steep influx of retirees, and golf courses and strip malls are now as prevalent as the elegant Spanish-mission style homes. The town's population has swelled from 13,669 in 1970 to 90,354 at the latest census. But that's just a hint of the growth that many believe is yet to come.

To build a case for the pipeline, Thompson in 1998 commissioned a report that projected St. George-Washington County could reach 525,000 residents - a city larger than present day Minneapolis - by 2050.

In response, the Grand Canyon Trust, a pipeline opponent, commissioned a separate study, concluding that Washington County's population will only reach 340,000.

The Trust has a long list of reasons why it believes the pipeline is a bad idea. It says taking water out of the Colorado will harm riverine organisms and that it will spur more unsustainable human growth in the Colorado Plateau region.

Few would disagree that Utahans need to do a better job of conserving water. The state has the highest per capita rate of water use in the West, and yet citizens enjoy water rates that are among the lowest in the nation. Residents of St. George use 335 gallons of water per person each day, compared to 170 gallons for residents of Tucson and 135 gallons for residents of Flagstaff.

Much of the residential use of water in Utah goes to lawns and gardens, says D. Larry Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. The state is trying to reduce consumption by 25 percent.

But even with water conservation, "our projections still show that as our population increases we will need to import more water," Mr. Anderson says.

Across the state, engineers are contemplating another major new water project. The plan calls for building a dam along the Bear River, which provides 60 percent of the freshwater entering the Great Salt Lake, and then channeling water into metropolitan Salt Lake City, where 80 percent of Utah's 2.2 million residents live.

The Bear River Pipeline, first proposed 70 years ago, would carry between two and three times the volume of water of the Lake Powell Pipeline and cost up to $1 billion. Both pipelines are more than a decade away from construction, though Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which opposes the projects, says decisions made in the next few years will determine their fate.

"We need more water crises in the West, because it seems to be our only vehicle for education," says Mr. Frankel. "Most people don't think about water. They just turn on the tap and expect it to flow."

Thompson, however, is convinced ecological and economic benefits can be derived from simply being smarter about how water is moved around the landscape. "You can't stop growth," he says.

Maybe not, says Wilkinson, but growth must be slowed. The West already lacks enough water to keep pace with demand, he says. "Any talk of what's possible in the new West is a conversation that must begin and end with water."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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