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A southern Utah mayor's water warning: 'We are running out'

A boat navigates through Lake Powell near Page, Ariz., on July 19, 2022. The bleached-white rock on the canyon walls, the so-called “bathtub ring,” show historic high-water marks for the reservoir and how far water levels have declined in recent years.

A boat navigates through Lake Powell near Page, Ariz., on July 19, 2022. The bleached-white rock on the canyon walls, the so-called “bathtub ring,” show historic high-water marks for the reservoir and how far water levels have declined in recent years. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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ST. GEORGE — Utah's Washington County is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That growth is made possible by the Virgin River which supplies the region and its multiplying suburbs with water.

But drought and population growth have long plagued the river, and the mayor of Ivins, a small, bedroom community of nearby St. George, did not mince words when addressing constituents this month.

"There's good cause to be concerned about water," said Mayor Chris Hart during an annual neighborhood meeting in January. "We are running out."

Hart said the city has run out of water previously, dating back to the 1960s — "but there was always a solution, because we hadn't fully developed the sources of water. That's coming to an end."

"We've just about used up all of the Virgin River drainage and our only hope is that we can convince enough of us to conserve better," he continued.

Hart's message came in the wake of an upscale community near Scottsdale, Arizona, having its water shut off on New Year's Day. Similar to the St. George area, the fast-growing Scottsdale community received its drinking water from Arizona's allotment of the Colorado River, and the shutoffs were in part due to shortages in the river's basin, according to a memo sent to residents of the Rio Verde Foothills neighborhood.

And last summer, the drought was so bad that several small Utah towns lost access to drinking water.

Hart, who served on the Washington County Water Conservancy Board, said much of the region's growth is predicated on construction of the Lake Powell Pipeline, a $3 billion project that would funnel 80,000 acre-feet of Utah's Colorado River allotment from the Glen Canyon Dam to the St. George area.

"We've literally had all our eggs in the Lake Powell Pipeline basket for 20 years," he said.

The pipeline is controversial — Hart himself called it the "Lake Powell Pipe-dream" during the meeting. Though it's already been approved by the state, Hart says he can't "see how the district is going to navigate through all of the litigation that's currently in place and will be in place, with the obvious impacts of climate change on the flow of the Colorado River."

Without the pipeline, Hart says Washington County can't keep up with its unfettered growth. The district, he says, is looking for a "plan B" that was never drawn up in the first place, "trying to come up with ways to allow some growth to continue, if possible, and if not at least to make sure the water supply for those that have come here, including all of us, remains adequate."

Hart says the project could be stopped, and costly litigation avoided, if the area's politicians declared a water emergency, a hypothetical he doesn't see happening.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, recently said lawmakers will prioritize developing new water sources for Washington County this legislative session, as the future of the Lake Powell Pipeline remains uncertain. While they wait for the state and federal government "to have some finality in that decision, there's some opportunities we have down there to develop water, relative to aqueducts in that area," he told the Deseret News in an interview.

Wilson also alluded to studying water reuse systems that could help Washington County — echoing Hart during the neighborhood meeting.

"(We) take that water that we are running down the sink or flushing down the toilet, process it and reuse it either for irrigation, or ... actually bring it back to drinking water standards," Hart said.

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Kyle Dunphey
Kyle Dunphey is a reporter on the Utah InDepth team, covering a mix of topics including politics, the environment and breaking news. A Vermont native, he studied communications at the University of Utah and graduated in 2020. Whether on his skis or his bike, you can find Kyle year-round exploring Utah’s mountains.

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