Las Vegas Sun

March 30, 2023

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With plan to quench its thirst for vanity, Utah thumbs its nose at dry neighbors


Felicia Fonseca / AP

This June 21, 2015, photo shows Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Ariz.

On the federal government’s drought map, the hardest-hit areas — the driest of the dry — are shaded in crimson red. Looking at the current map, the coloring makes it appear that someone plunged a knife into Southern Nevada, and blood flowed to portions of California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and even Texas.

One glance at this map and any reasonable person would understand that the region needs to take its water conservation efforts up several notches.

But then there’s Utah, which clearly has lost its senses over its bid to open a new pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George.

Not only has Utah resisted pleas from other states in the Colorado River compact, but Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill in March to create a river authority armed with a $9 million legal defense fund. The bill was the legislative equivalent of saying “Bring it on” to Utah’s neighbors, all of whom staunchly oppose the St. George pipeline.

It’s appalling: Utah would rather dig in for a long legal battle than work with other states to protect the water supply and help address the underlying causes of the drought.

And for what? To keep lawns green in St. George, and grow crops that could easily be raised somewhere else without putting an entire region’s water supply at even greater risk. The project also is aimed at expanding development in the community of 90,000 people.

But it’s not as if St. George is currently starved for water. Its water rates are cheap, and per capita usage has been estimated at 250 gallons to 350 gallons per day. That’s at least twice as much water as Las Vegas residents consume — our per capita usage is less than 125 gallons.

The pipeline would pump another 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to St. George, which, it should be noted, would not exceed Utah’s unused allocation from the Colorado River.

But a couple of things should be noted much more emphatically: The region is facing a water crisis brought on by a marathon drought and supercharged by climate change; and the water that would be piped to St. George amounts to about one-quarter of Nevada’s entire allotment from the river.

Just because the water’s available, doesn’t mean it should be used for non-critical purposes like creating the illusion of an oasis in the desert.

Nevada gets that, especially here in the southern part of the state. That’s why the Legislature is on the verge of passing a bill banning ornamental grass, which is described as turf that is stepped on only when it’s mowed or groomed.

The ban would require removal of about 3,900 acres of such turf in the Las Vegas Valley and would cut our water usage by about 29,000 acre-feet. Also — and this is important, considering the effects of climate change — it would reduce carbon emissions from lawn maintenance equipment by an estimated 23,000 tons per year.

Assuming it passes, the ornamental grass ban would augment the cash-for-grass conversion incentives adopted years ago by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to replace residential turf with water-efficient plants and landscaping. Through that program and other conservation measures, such as treating and reusing the wastewater we send back to Lake Mead, Nevada has winnowed its draw on the Colorado to 250,000 acre-feet per year.

These are the kind of steps Utah should be taking — not building a war chest for litigation on a water-hog project.

Lawsuits involving water often become a legal form of trench war, stretching out for years and even decades. One infamous water dispute between California and Arizona was filed in 1930 and wasn’t resolved until well into the 2000s.

This is no way to address a regional problem that affects every state that draws water from the Colorado. Negotiating and conserving to protect the entire region’s long-term survivability is the way forward.

The drought appears to be hitting another gear, as we’ve seen all around us. Snowpack in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada is poor. Farmers in New Mexico are facing sharp cutbacks in water for irrigation, while their counterparts who rely on the Klamath River have been cut off. In California, only two of the state’s 12 largest reservoirs are above normal capacity after the wet seasons, and overall the state’s reservoirs are half-dry.

That blood-red portion of the drought map isn’t likely to shrink anytime soon. If this isn’t a crisis, we hate to think what amounts to one.

Against this backdrop, Utah’s stand-your-ground mentality on the St. George project isn’t just an affront to its neighbors in the region, it’s self-destructive. We urge Utah residents to tell their elected leaders to come to their senses before they do something that will hurt the entire Southwest, the Beehive State included.